By Alex Phillips
A proposal to adopt non-partisan redistricting for state and federal elections in Wisconsin is gaining momentum. Currently Wisconsin is one of twenty-four states where the state legislature is responsible for redistricting. As outlined in the Wisconsin Constitution, districts must be as compact as practicable and contiguous. They are also supposed to follow municipal ward lines when possible and three Assembly districts must be nested in each Senate district.
Two bills, Wisconsin Senate SB 163 and its Assembly companion AB 185 propose taking redistricting out of the hands of the state legislature and giving the responsibility to a non-partisan state agency, the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB). The LRB is already responsible for drafting legislation on behalf of the state legislature and advocates for reform believe their nonpartisan status would lead to better redistricting outcomes. The idea is not new and the Wisconsin legislation is actually modeled after the redistricting process in Iowa.
The proposed legislation would require the LRB to draw the maps without considering voting patterns, party information, an incumbent’s residence information or demographic information except as necessary to ensure minority participation. The districts would still have to be compact and contiguous. After the maps are drawn they would then go to the state legislature for approval and, if approved, to the governor to be signed. The state legislature would be able to reject the LRB maps and send them back with an explanation of what could be improved. A provision in the legislation gives the LRB three chances, but if three versions of their maps are rejected the power to draw the maps would revert to the state legislature for that cycle of redistricting. It is worth noting, however, that this (the legislature rejecting three versions of the map) has not yet happened in Iowa and actually their redistricting process is rarely contentious.
The proposed bills would also create a Redistricting Advisory Commission, which would ensure the process was transparent. This new commission would make the maps available to the public and ensure there is sufficient time for public comments. This component is likely in response to the transparency concerns surrounding redistricting in Wisconsin last cycle.
Advocates of the proposed redistricting reform have adopted many of the familiar arguments for using a non-partisan agency to draw district maps. They argue that it will eliminate bizarrely shaped districts and increase the number of competitive elections. While these are standard arguments in support of non-partisan redistricting, perhaps as a sign of the times, reform advocates are also pushing the idea that redistricting reform can be equated with fiscal constraint. The argument here is that in the last cycle of redistricting Wisconsin spent money paying one law firm to draw the maps, a different law firm to defend the maps, and paying plaintiffs who successfully challenged the maps. Theoretically there would be savings with the proposed legislation since the LRB already exists and the non-partisan nature of the new maps would be less controversial and therefore less likely to lead to litigation.
Opponents of the reform proposal have mostly adopted the view of Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R). He believes that redistricting is “one of the most important duties that the legislature is required to perform under the Constitution.” And he has “no interest in turning that duty over to an unelected, unaccountable board.”
Though SB 163 was introduced to little fanfare last April, recent developments are focusing attention on the proposed overhaul of redistricting in the Badger State. The recent push to take on redistricting can be traced to three Wisconsin newspaper editorial page editors who wanted to increase public awareness about the issue. Recognizing that the bill and AB 185 were gathering dust in committee, the group coordinated a campaign to apply public pressure to hold hearings on the bills. As a result, eight major news outlets from around Wisconsin ran editorials in mid-August that advocated for redistricting reform and called on the public to contact the committee chairs to voice their support for the proposal.
Capitalizing on the foundation laid by the newspapers, in September the bipartisan team of Sen. Cullen (D) and Sen. Schultz (R), coauthors of SB 163 and the chief proponents of redistricting reform in the Wisconsin Senate, called a joint press conference to outline their proposal. They too made a direct appeal to the public and encouraged social media users to adopt the hashtag #ShakeWisUp as a rallying cry for redistricting reform. Their efforts seem to have paid off. Both the Senate and Assembly bills gained cosponsors in the last month and the AARP recently endorsed the proposal.
Still, the chairmen of the committees where the bills are assigned in the Senate and Assembly have rejected repeated calls to hold hearings on the bills. Only time will tell what the future holds for redistricting in Wisconsin, but for now momentum is on the side of reform.