JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.
Frustrated by partisan gerrymandering, voters in a growing number of states have taken the pen and computer away from lawmakers who have traditionally drawn U.S. House and state legislative districts and instead entrusted that responsibility to others.
In the past decade, eight states have overhauled their redistricting procedures to lessen the potential of partisan manipulation, including four that adopted ballot measures last fall. More could consider redistricting changes during the 2020 elections—the last before the U.S. Census initiates another round of mapmaking for over 400 U.S. House seats and nearly 7,400 state legislative seats.
The current movement began in California for the 2010 Census, when voters approved ballot initiatives creating an independent citizens’ commission to handle redistricting. Measures touted as redistricting reforms also have passed in Florida, New York, Ohio and—most recently— in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah.
In Ohio, the effort was bipartisan. Republicans joined with Democrats to back a pair of successful ballot measures that will require minority-party support to enact new congressional and state legislative districts for the next decade.
Ohio’s congressional delegation has remained at 12 Republicans and four Democrats ever since GOP officials redrew the maps after the 2010 Census, a 75-25 percent tilt that is out of line with the statewide vote for the two major parties. In November, Republican congressional candidates in Ohio won 52 percent of that vote while Democrats won 48 percent.
The Associated Press used a so-called “efficiency gap” test to analyze the 2018 elections. It’s one of the same analytical tools cited in a North Carolina gerrymandering case for which the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments on Tuesday. The test showed Ohio’s pro-Republican leaning ranked just behind North Carolina’s in the 2018 congressional elections, and its state House districts also showed a GOP advantage.
“We’ve been living under that rigged system for the entire decade,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper.
Yet one of the supporters of Ohio’s new redistricting procedures is Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who worked as a state senator to refer the measures to the ballot. LaRose said he hopes the new process leads to more competitive elections—even if that puts Republicans at risk.
“I also see this in some ways as tough love for my party,” LaRose said. “I believe that Republican candidates are likely to win based on their ideas and based on the quality of their solutions for governing. But I think that when we rely on something other than that to win an election, it weakens us.”
Voters in Missouri went a step further last fall, becoming the first state to insert a version of the efficiency gap test into its constitution. Under the new measure, a nonpartisan state demographer will use the 2020 Census data to draw districts for the state House and Senate that achieve “partisan fairness” and “competitiveness.”
The Missouri measure will not apply to congressional districts, which will continue to be drawn by the Legislature, currently controlled by Republicans.
Republicans have maintained a 6-2 advantage over Democrats in Missouri’s congressional delegation ever since the current districts were enacted in 2011, when a few Democrats joined with Republican lawmakers to override a veto by the Democratic governor.
The AP analysis shows that Missouri Republicans won one more congressional seat than would have been expected in 2018 based on their average share of the votes. That swing district was in suburban St. Louis, where Republican U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner withstood a close challenge from Democrat Cort VanOstran.
Though he acknowledged shortfalls in fundraising and name identification, VanOstran said: “I think that Missouri is a victim of gerrymandering.”
Yet independent commissions don’t always do away with partisan advantages, some of which can arise naturally when Democratic or Republican voters choose to live in high concentrations in certain neighborhoods or cities.
The AP’s efficiency gap analysis shows California Democrats won four more congressional seats than would have been expected based on their district average share of the vote in the 2018 elections. That helped boost Democrats’ overwhelming majority in California’s congressional delegation to 46-7 over Republicans. The AP’s analysis showed California had a more neutral result when Democrats won a 39-14 majority over Republicans in the 2016 elections.
“There’s no doubt that the commission produced a map that tilts a little bit Democratic,” said Eric McGhee, a researcher at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California who developed the efficiency gap model. But “looking at average results over time, it’s not consistently Democratic. It flips around; it’s variable in that sense.”
Other states that use independent or bipartisan commissions to draw state legislative or congressional districts include Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington. In Iowa, nonpartisan legislative staff create the redistricting maps, which then go to the Legislature for an up-or-down vote.
Blackhawk Technical College describes its latest project as “co-locating services to support pathways initiatives designed to improve student retention and success.”
It would be easier to call it “remodeling for success.”
Last year, the Blackhawk Technical College Board approved a three-year facilities plan. Such plans usually languish on some administrator’s shelf, but work already has started on one of the school’s top priorities: combining the student success center and the library for a new learning resource center.
The student success center, which is at the front of the building, houses learning labs, a testing center, tutors and open areas for studying.
The library is toward the back of the building. An enclosure in recent Blackhawk Technical College Board packet notes the library’s holdings and resource material have “largely migrated to an electronic/online format” resulting in the need for less space.
The cost of the remodeling to combine the two will cost an estimated $280,000 and must still be approved the Wisconsin Technical College System Board. The project will be paid for with money from previous remodeling projects that came in under budget.
It’s significant that Blackhawk officials decided to do the learning resource center before the other 10 items on the list. The project is more than a consolidation and a name change. If it is successful, more students will stay in school, more students will graduate and even more will consider the possibility of continuing their educations after getting their associate degrees.
“There’s a pretty significant synergy in having those two groups in one place,” said Jon Tysse, Blackhawk Tech’s director of institutional research and effectiveness. “It’s all based on theoretical research that has proven to be true over time.”
First the obvious: Student who go to tutoring do better in school. Students who visit the research librarian do better on their papers.
Now the unexpected: Students who visit the research librarian are three times more likely to return to school the next semester.
“Students need to understand that there’s more than just their instructors,” Tysse said. “There’s other people who care about them and want them to succeed.”
It’s not just about the librarian, it’s about students becoming more a part of an institution.
“The most interesting piece is that when you have engagement outside the classroom, the students become more engaged with their work, more engaged with the belief in themselves and more engaged with the idea of themselves as a graduates,” Tysse said.
Tysse pointed to the work of Vincent Tinto, a sociologist whose specialty is student retention and learning communities.
In a September 2016 essay in “Inside Higher Education,” Tinto wrote about the qualities students need to graduate successfully.
One is “self-efficacy,” a term Tinto defines as “a person’s belief in their ability to succeed at a particular task or in a specific situation.”
It’s a quality that’s learned, and unlike self-confidence, it can vary from task to task.
Another is a sense of belonging.
“While believing one can succeed in college is essential for persistence to completion, it does not in itself ensure it,” Tinto wrote in his essay. “For that to occur, students have to come to see themselves as a member of a community of other students, faculty and staff who value their membership—that they matter and belong.”
That’s what Tysse sees happening here.
“This is going to be really powerful move for our students,” Tysse said. “It’s going to have lasting effects, both for the students who graduate and for the community.”
Orval L. Appleman
Robert L. Britton
Patrick J. Joyce
Lois M. Ketterhagen
Susan “Susie” M. Newcomb
Thomas P. Panzer
Bernice R. Rasmussen
Rosemary J. Strand
Janet K. Williams
Earlier this month, when snow still cradled roads in frozen Juneau County, Emily and Larry Scheunemann searched for signs of large meat-eaters.
On a quiet road, they found paw prints advancing in a straight line, then disappearing under drifting snow.
“Could be a wolf,” Emily said, bending down and carefully measuring the size of the prints with a ruler.
For 20 years, the Scheunemanns of rural Whitewater have been tracking gray wolves in winter in remote corners of the state.
The volunteers are among almost 150 citizen scientists across Wisconsin who help the state Department of Natural Resources determine the number, distribution and territories of wolves.
“They are the backbone of our wolf-monitoring program,” said Scott Walter, large carnivore specialist with the DNR.
As wolf numbers have grown and expanded, it has become impossible for DNR staff alone to properly survey them.
In the mid-1990s, DNR staff developed a volunteer-tracking program to give residents a chance to submit notes from the field.
“In large part, this is what we base our wolf count on,” Walter said.
The DNR also looks at information provided by radio-collared wolves, recorded wolf howls, reports of wolves from the public and photos of wolves on outdoor cameras.
Snow-track surveys also have been used to determine where fishers, bobcats and other forest carnivores are located.
For Emily and Larry, sleuthing for wolves is a passion they take seriously.
In the area assigned to them by the DNR, they look for signs of canis lupus three times each winter. Signs include tracks, scat and urine in the snow.
The retired teachers went on their first tracking trip in 1999, when it was 16 degrees below zero. They drove five hours to Clark County to do the searching but found no evidence of wolves.
They almost gave up.
Eventually, they met Linda Nelson, an experienced tracker near Eau Claire, who encouraged and mentored them.
Over the years, the Scheunemanns also have taken classes with internationally known wolf experts L. David Mech and Jim Halfpenny and have seen wolves in the Northwest Territories and Yellowstone National Park.
Learning how to make sense of prints in the snow was a gradual process, but Larry calls his wife an exceptional tracker.
Emily has a gift for seeing clues that many of us would miss. She reads her paw prints like a true detective and never exaggerates about what she finds.
“When I say there’s a wolf, there’s a wolf,” she said, while examining possible wolf tracks in Juneau County. “It’s not easy to find them. Often we have to search and search, and we still don’t find them.”
Once they followed what they thought were four sets of wolf tracks, until the tracks suddenly disappeared. Emily and Larry concluded the tracks were made by dogs, and the tracks disappeared when the dogs jumped into the back of a truck.
“At first, we were constantly fooled by dog tracks,” Larry said.
Wolves usually travel in straight lines, while dogs zig-zag. Wolves also have the largest feet among the canids, which include coyotes and dogs.
In 2017-18, mid-winter data from the DNR showed 905 to 944 wolves in the state.
“We recognize this is before the breeding season,” Walter said. “Last summer, we had more than 1,000 wolves in the state. Over the course of summer, fall and winter, some will die, and some of the younger wolves will disperse.”
This year’s mid-winter count will be released in two months.
The state’s wolf management plan, first published in 1999 and modified in 2006, originally called for a population goal of 350 wolves.
The plan is used to guide DNR wolf management.
Currently, the wolf in Wisconsin is protected under the Endangered Species Act, and the state does not have management authority.
But U.S. wildlife officials plan to lift protections for gray wolves all across the Lower 48 states.
Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced the decision earlier this month.
If de-listing happens, wolf management will go back to the state.
“When the wolf is de-listed, we will re-engage in updating the management plan,” Walter said. “It is possible we will set a new goal, which will come about only with lots of public engagement.”
State laws related to managing wolves have shifted between protection measures and a hunting season, which opened in 2012 and closed two years later.
“When wolves are not federally protected, our state law requires that the DNR permit a wolf harvest season,” Walter said. “If the wolf is de-listed, we will begin the process of re-establishing a harvest season. By any reasonable biological measure, wolves have recovered in the Upper Midwest.”
Wolves are established across the entire northern third of Wisconsin and the Central Sand Plains region. Some are dispersing to southern Wisconsin and beyond, Walter said.
In addition to tracking in winter, Larry enjoys howling for wolves in spring and summer.
“Emily says I sound just like a wolf,” he said.
Larry’s bay is long and mournful, and he has successfully prompted wolves to respond.
“To get wolves to howl, you have to be in an area they are defending,” Emily explained. “They have to think you are a trespassing wolf. Their howling is a way of saying this is ours. Keep out.”
The Scheunemanns never grow weary of tracking or howling for wolves. Even if there are no wolves, they often find tracks of other animals, including bobcats and fishers. In spring and summer, they are surrounded by wildflowers and songbirds. They know there’s always something interesting to discover.
“There is so much to see” in nature, Emily said. “It’s much more than tracking wolves. It’s like a treasure hunt, and you never know what you are going to find.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.