The state budget isn’t the ideal mechanism for reforming the highly politicized process of redistricting, but Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to put a nonpartisan commission in charge of drawing district lines is worthwhile.
We hope the Republican-controlled Legislature accepts his plan or a version of it, even if that first requires removing the proposal from the biennial budget and making it into stand-alone legislation.
As the Wisconsin State Journal noted in a guest editorial last week, Evers overreached with his budget proposal by inserting too many policy initiatives into it. But this mistake doesn’t take away from the fact that a vast majority of Wisconsinites—72 percent in a Marquette Law School Poll released in January—support nonpartisan redistricting. They recognize manipulating district lines to favor one party undermines democracy by making elections less competitive.
We’re disappointed but not surprised Republican lawmakers have been cool to Evers’ proposal. Adopting it could curtail Republicans’ power, especially in the Assembly where Republicans currently hold a 63-36 advantage. Republicans benefit from the current setup because they gerrymandered the lines in 2010 to help their candidates.
Politicians struggle to see beyond the next election, but in the long run, a nonpartisan commission would protect the interests of both parties. The commission would function as an insurance policy of sorts, lowering the stakes should one party find itself out of power.
Under the current setup, the defeated party is punished twice—once at the polls and again during the secretive, partisan process to redraw district lines, which occurs every 10 years after the U.S. census is taken. The final gerrymandered product often ensures one party’s dominance at the polls for years to come.
And let’s not forget: Democrats are prone, too, to abusing their job of redrawing district lines. Just look at Illinois, where Democrats dominate the Legislature. In Illinois, Republicans are the ones calling for the creation of a nonpartisan system for drawing legislative maps.
Gerrymandering has so dramatically distorted election outcomes that it’s prompted numerous lawsuits alleging it violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. A Wisconsin suit landed at the U.S. Supreme Court last year, though the court didn’t resolve the issue.
Evers’ proposal is that resolution. It would create a new nonpartisan Redistricting Advisory Commission and give responsibility for drawing lines to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau. The bureau would be prohibited from using information that typically guides political parties in determining boundaries, such as voting trends, incumbent residence information and demographic data.
The commission would comprise party leaders from both legislative chambers, and those four appointees would then pick a fifth representative to chair the commission. The five would oversee the creation of the bureau’s map, ideally a map favoring neither party.
Whether such a commission could truly be nonpartisan is subject to debate, but other states have implemented similar systems and have reported increases in competitive races and greater public satisfaction with the results. Wisconsin can do better than the secretive, partisan system it has today, and we urge Republicans to work with Evers in forming a nonpartisan commission.