Rock County residents will be able to express their opinions about the gerrymandering controversy in the April 7 elections, but their referendum vote is only advisory.

Rock County Board member Rich Bostwick proposed the referendum. He said the idea came from a constituent, Mark Fuller, a longtime local Democratic Party activist.

Legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years after the census. Both major parties have been guilty of redrawing legislative district lines to give their party an advantage at the polls, a practice called gerrymandering.

The most recent legislative map was drawn when Republicans held both houses of the Legislature and the governorship, and the map has helped keep the GOP in power.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has ordered a nonpartisan commission to redraw the lines after the 2020 census, but Republicans, who still control the Legislature, have said they will draw their own maps.

The referendum calls for the Legislature to adopt nonpartisan redistricting.

Rock County Board member Rick Richard opposes the referendum. He noted the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 last June that claims of partisan gerrymandering are political questions that federal courts cannot address.

Richard noted Rock County has held nine advisory referendums on statewide political issues since 2010.

He said only one referendum during that time, which changed the elected coroner’s office to a medical examiner’s department, addressing a county issue, had any effect.

“The ballot referendum question of coroner is an example of how the ballot referendum should be used,” Richard wrote in an email. “... Should we, as a board, approve and add to the ballot referendums all the state issues that arise that some Rock County voters are interested in?”

Richard also noted this and most other recent advisory referendums have been “somewhat partisan in nature."

He noted Tim Cullen, a former state senator and a Democrat, spoke to the board for 30 minutes on the redistricting referendum, but no comparable Republican offered a different viewpoint.

“In my opinion, these types of advisory questions appear to add an activist partisan nature to a nonpartisan county board," Richard wrote.

Bostwick said the issue is one of fairness.

“The way the system is now, it’s like the politicians are choosing their electors rather than the other way around, as it should be,” Bostwick said, and the Legislature has not responded to strong public support for the change.

Bostwick noted referendums in favor of allowing recreational marijuana use passed overwhelmingly around the state in 2018, and afterward, legislators expressed more interest in the topic.

“I think (a referendum) is a way to force the Legislature to pay attention to the will of the voters. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true,” Bostwick said.

Bostwick noted former state senators Tim Cullen, a Democrat, and Dale Schultz of Richland Center, a Republican, have supported nonpartisan redistricting for years.

Bostwick said Marquette, Milwaukee, Monroe, Pierce, Portage, St. Croix and Trempealeau and Wood counties are holding similar referendums April 7, and Jefferson County will hold one in November.

Richard, in a second email, seemed open to the idea, saying, “It seems that redistricting with a neutral group like Iowa does appear to make more sense. ...

“Maybe in Wisconsin, since Republicans aren't changing the process, the next time Democrats have full control of the state Capitol like they had in 2009, I think, they will create a neutral group redistricting process,” Richard wrote.