DuWayne Severson, a Republican candidate for the 44th Assembly District, never intended to draw attention to redistricting reform with his May 12 letter to the editor. But he managed to do just that after other letter writers objected to his letter’s lone reference to the issue: “Wasting valuable taxpayer money talking about redistricting has yet to pay a mortgage, rent or put food on anyone’s table.”

Our immediate response was to wonder what he meant by the remark, and we asked him Wednesday for clarification. The editorial board has made no secret of its support for Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to create a nonpartisan commission to redraw district boundaries. While the pandemic has overshadowed this issue, the government’s fractured pandemic response only further demonstrates the need for redistricting reform.

As Severson put it, he doesn’t necessarily oppose Evers’ proposal, though he didn’t express support for it, either. Now is not the time to discuss it, he said, noting the public has much larger worries.

“I’m not there right now. My focus is to get people’s lives back on track,” said Severson, who is among the thousands of people to lose their jobs because of the pandemic.

Yes, the government’s pandemic response should be top priority. But we share the opinion that government can “walk and chew gum at the same time,” meaning it can manage both redistricting reform and its pandemic response.

The justification for redistricting reform rests in the lack of competitive races at the federal and state levels. Wisconsin Republicans rigged the redistricting maps in 2011, ensuring election victory for many Republican representatives, particularly in the Assembly. In fact, Republicans did such a good job that many candidates’ re-election worries today have shifted to primary opponents who advocate right-wing ideas, forcing incumbents to adopt extreme positions that make compromise with Democratic representatives near impossible.

The result is gridlock, and, as a court battle over the governor’s safer-at-home order showed, even public health emergencies have become subject to partisan bickering.

The inability of Democrats and Republicans to reach an agreement on a pandemic response only adds to the urgency of redistricting reform, and Rock County voters appreciate the need to move this issue forward. Indeed, a Rock County advisory referendum in April showed more than 80% of voters support a nonpartisan procedure for redistricting.

Some Wisconsin Republicans try to couch their opposition to redistricting reform as philosophical, but it’s easily unmasked as partisan when considering that both parties engage in gerrymandering. In Illinois, for example, Democrats dominate the state government, and Republicans there favor redistricting reform. Naturally, the party in minority wants reforms they feel will create a more level playing feel.

In a better world, both parties would realize a nonpartisan process for redrawing district boundaries promotes better policy outcomes. We aren’t there yet, obviously. But at least in the 44th Assembly District race, voters have the opportunity to set a high bar and demand that candidates address the issue.

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