VERNON COUNTY - Vernon County Friends of Fair Maps held a forum at the American Legion Taphouse #138 in Viroqua on Tuesday, March 12. The discussion focused on the effects of gerrymandering on Wisconsin congressional elections. The event was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters, and the Fair Maps Coalition.
Almost 25 citizens gath-ered to listen to Joe Heim, Professor of Political Sci-ence/Public Administration at UW-LaCrosse, and Jay Heck, Executive Director of Common Cause in Wiscon-sin, discuss gerrymandering and the upcoming vote on a Fair Maps resolution in Vernon County. This vote will take place in the spring election to be held on Tues-day, April 2.
The resolution Vernon County residents will vote on is:
“Should the Wisconsin Legislature create a nonpar-tisan procedure for preparing legislative and congressional redistricting plans?”
If the resolution passes, Vernon County will be one of seven counties where such a resolution has passed. In other counties where such a resolution has passed, it has garnered up-ward of 70 percent approval.
In all, 42 of 72 of Wis-consin’s county boards have passed Fair Maps resolu-tions, with the Crawford County Board being the most recent.
Fair and impartial
Joe Heim told participants that he is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, and that he had been in-volved with redistricting issues for a long time.
“There shouldn’t be two sides on this issue,” Heim said. “What we need is a commonsense process that is fair and impartial.”
Heim said it used to be difficult to interest citizens in the dry and complicated topic of redistricting, but that has changed.
“Our democracy has be-come increasingly polarized along partisan lines,” Heim said. “This means that can-didates have become in-creasingly partisan and we have seen a corresponding decrease in moderation and compromise.”
Heim said that increas-ingly voters think that it is wrong for legislators to pick their voters, versus voters picking their legislators. He said that of the 435 legisla-tive seats in Wisconsin, only 50-70 of them are truly competitive - due to creation of “safe seats” as a result of partisan gerrymandering.
“The idea of democratic consensus is out the win-dow,” Heim said. “There are no more big umbrellas, and in addition to gerry-mandering, there are also many tactics of voter sup-pression such as the closing of polling paces, limiting hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and Wis-consin’s Voter ID Law, which is one of the most restrictive in the nation.”
Heim says that voter sup-pression has a direct, nega-tive impact on the legitima-cy of our governments. Voter turnout is constantly decreasing, and trust in government is declining in national polls.
“In the 2012 election, af-ter the current legislative seats were redistricted, Democrats and Republicans each got 50 percent of the vote,” Heim pointed out. “Despite that, the Republi-cans picked up five seats, and the Democrats picked up only three.
He went on to point out that in the November 2018 election, Democrats had won all statewide elections by a 52 to 48 percent mar-gin. But the results in the state legislative elections did not reflect these percentages.
“In the Assembly, the Republicans lost one seat, creating a 64-63 majority,” Heim said. “And in the Senate, the Republicans picked up one seat, creating a 19-14 majority.”
Heim explained that the elected leaders who oppose creation of a nonpartisan redistricting process use the following propositions to express their opposition:
• oppose decrease in the role of the legislature;
• say it is the legislature’s job to oversee redistricting;
• claim there is no such thing as “nonpartisan”;
• claim that there is no way to measure partisan discrimination.
Heim pointed out that in the gerrymandering case in Wisconsin that had gone all the way to the U.S. Su-preme Court, ‘Gill v. Whit-ford,’ a measure of partisan discrimination had been articulated – the principle of ‘efficiency.’
Back in 2011, Republi-cans redrew Wisconsin’s state legislature maps and heavily gerrymandered them to benefit their own party. To do so, they used a time-tested technique known as packing and cracking. They “packed” many Democratic voters into just a few districts that the party would win overwhelmingly, to dilute their electoral strength elsewhere. Then they “cracked” remaining Democratic voters elsewhere in the state, spreading them out across various districts to try to ensure the GOP would have the advantage in most of them.
University of Chicago law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos and politi-cal scientist Eric McGhee had developed a metric called the “efficiency gap” — a way to calculate how many votes for each party were “wasted” by a particular map, through packing and cracking.
So in the Gilll v. Whit-ford suit, the plaintiffs — 12 Democratic voters in Wisconsin — proposed that the courts limit partisan gerrymandering based on the efficiency gap. And they suggested that if a party gets a wasted-vote advantage of more than seven percent of the total vote in the state, that’s unconstitutional.
In the Gill v. Whitford case, the very expensive software used in redistricting by the Republicans was also at the very center of the lawsuit.
“They used the extremely expensive software they had obtained to go through eight or nine different iterations of the maps, and then picked the one that was most parti-san,” Heim said. “Further, the lawsuit brought up the fact that there was also an attempt to destroy the hard drives that documented the process, but some evidence had survived.”
Heim said that with the current divided government in the state, with a Republi-can legislature and a Demo-cratic governor, the redis-tricting after the 2020 cen-sus will be a politically fraught process. He said that it will likely lead to the courts once again having to draw the maps.
Jay Heck of Wisconsin Common Cause talked about the Iowa Model for nonpartisan redistricting, and the bipartisan support in the state around the issues of reducing money in elec-tions, fair maps, and making it easier to vote.
“Republican Senator Dan Kapanke actually voted for public financing of elec-tions,” Heck observed. “That resolution was spon-sored by Senators Mike Ellis of Neenah and Dale Schultz of Richland Cen-ter.”
Heck explained that the U.S. conducts a census eve-ry 10 years. He said that for the last 50 years, every time there was a new census, Wisconsin had divided gov-ernment.
“2011 was the first time where one party – the Re-publican Party – controlled both the legislature and the executive branch when it was time for redistricting.”
Heck reported that Wis-consin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and State Senate Majority Lead-er Scott Fitzgerald had led the redistricting effort in complete secrecy, in a pro-cess that took over 100 hours.
“The result of that ultra-partisan redistricting was that Wisconsin now has the most uncompetitive elec-tions in the nation,” Heck said. “In both the Assembly and the Senate, only one in ten elections are competi-tive.”
Heck said that what was done in Wisconsin in 2011 was part of a ‘master plan,’ that was also implemented in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Caroli-na. He said that in the 2009-2010 legislative season, when Democrats controlled the legislature and the Gov-ernor’s office, the party had missed a key opportunity to adopt the Iowa Model for nonpartisan redistricting.
“All of the referendums that have been passed in Wisconsin are united behind adoption of the Iowa Mod-el,” Heck said. “In Wiscon-sin, it is a constitutional issue, with the legislature named as the entity respon-sible for redistricting – in other states it is different.”
Heck explained that with the Iowa Model, a nonparti-san task force draws the maps, and then the legisla-ture is given the opportunity for a simple ‘yes-no’ vote without opportunity to offer amendments. If the redrawn maps are voted down, then the task force accepts input, and offers another set of maps for another ‘yes-no’ vote.
“If the legislature rejects the maps twice, then the legislature can offer amendments,” Heck said. “However, this has never happened because the poli-ticians are afraid of voter censure if they cannot accept the results of the non-partisan process, and at that point passage requires a three-quarters majority to pass.”
Heck says that the Iowa Model does not mandate that there be competitive elections. In Iowa, he ex-plained, there are mixed results, with some elections becoming more competitive after redistricting, and some less.
The Iowa Model, Heck explained, requires the task force to redraw the maps based on fixed criteria:
• prioritize districts shaped like big squares or blocks;
• avoid zigzag lines like we see in so many Wiscon-sin districts;
• keep counties together where possible; and
• keep costs down.
“In 2011, Vos spent $4 million of the taxpayers money to defend indefensi-ble maps,” Heck said. “In Iowa, the cost of redistrict-ing is usually about $150,000, spent mainly to transport task force mem-bers around the state to hold public hearings.”
Part of the reason the Io-wa legislature adopted their model was to control costs. They were especially con-cerned to avoid litigation, which drives the cost up.
Heck pointed out that Governor Evers has included money in his proposed budget to enact the Iowa Model of redistricting, which he believes the Re-publicans will withdraw from the budget they pass. Under Evers’ plan, the Leg-islative Reference Bureau will draw the maps, and the legislature would vote on it.
“72 percent of Wiscon-sinites have polled as op-posed to partisan redistrict-ing,” Heck said. “Redistrict-ing has become the number one political reform issue in the state.”
Heck says that redistrict-ing is one of the things that Speaker Vos and Majority Leader Fitzgerald hold most near and dear. He said that he expects Vos and Fitzger-ald to oppose Governor Evers’ plan, and for Evers to then veto the budget the legislature sends him.
“The Iowa Model has a lot of support,” Heck said. “I expect it is almost inevi-table that this will go to court, costing the taxpayers of the state even more mon-ey.”
Heck layed out several things that citizens can do to support enactment of a fair redistricting process:
• vote ‘Yes’ on the refer-endum in Vernon County on April 2;
• contact your local legis-lators – Senator Jennifer Shilling is a co-sponsor of Governor Evers’ budget, but Loren Oldenburg reports he is ‘undecided;’
• vote in the State Su-preme Court election on April 2.
“Wisconsin has the worst judicial recusal laws in the country, so the Supreme Court election is of para-mount importance,” Heck said. “Gill v. Whitford will be heard again in June, and electing a justice who takes a good position on fair maps is crucial.”
Heck encourages all con-cerned citizens to talk to their friends, family and neighbors, and ask them if they support maps that are fair, having a real choice in elections, and having real competitive elections.
“It’s an easy pitch,” Heck says. “Nobody likes the arrogance of power.”