In Pursuit of Fair Maps

Door County voters will weigh in Nov. 3

On the ballot for Door County voters in the Nov. 3 general election will be an advisory referendum that asks, “Should the Wisconsin legislature create a nonpartisan procedure for the preparation of legislative and congressional district plans and maps?”

“The reason it’s so important is the lines are going to be redrawn next year,” said Pat Scieszinski, chair and spokesperson for the League of Women Voters of Door County. “So unless a process is produced to do it fairly, we’ll have the same thing for the next 10 years.”

Wisconsin legislators, by the power of the state constitution, currently draw the maps that divide the state, according to population, into 99 Assembly districts, 33 Senate districts and eight congressional districts.

Graphic by Solomon Lindenberg.

This reapportionment, or redistricting, is done every 10 years after the Census Bureau counts everyone living within the United States and gives that data to the states.

Thirty-seven states within the country give legislators the power to create district maps as Wisconsin does. Advocates for changing this system in Wisconsin say it’s rife for unfairness if one party controls the Assembly, Senate and governor’s office, what’s known as a “political trifecta.” When this happens, the controlling party can draw district lines that favor its political party, an action known as “gerrymandering.”

Gerrymandering packs the opposition party into fewer districts, which means fewer seats for the opposition. Other issues it creates are odd-shaped districts that can split counties and even cities, extreme partisanship, and less competition for incumbents. Located within safe districts, legislators don’t need to reach across the aisle or listen to constituents with opposing viewpoints.   

Gerrymandering traces its origin to 1812, when Elbridge Gerry – then the governor of Massachusetts – signed into law a state Senate district map that consolidated the Federalist Party’s vote within a few districts and gave disproportionate representation to Democratic-Republicans. The word “gerrymander,” coined by The Boston Gazette, connects Gerry’s name and the word “salamander” – the shape that the district resembled, as shown in the map. Source: A political cartoon first published in 1812 that satirizes the bizarre shape of a district in Essex County, Massachusetts.

“It doesn’t encourage a democratic process,” said Mike Brodd of the Door County Fair Maps task force. “It encourages an entrenchment of those in power.”

Republicans had a political trifecta in Wisconsin following the 2010 census when the current maps were drawn.

“That’s why 2011 was so dramatic,” said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, the state’s largest nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen reform advocacy organization. “One party controlled all the levers. They faced no opposition in what they wanted to do and could ram through the maps in a week’s time.”

That situation is unlikely to happen in 2021, given that the governor, a Democrat, can veto the legislature’s maps. In preparation, Gov. Tony Evers created the People’s Maps Commission by executive order in January. The advisory commission is charged with preparing proposed maps for the legislature to consider after the census data are available.

The model widely advocated in Wisconsin is the one Iowa uses. It does not use district voting data but instead uses only population, county and town borders, and continuity of land area.

Political trifectas are not typical in Wisconsin. The Democrats held one in 2009-10 just as the census was getting underway; the Republicans held one from 2011 until 2017, and prior to that, in 1995. Still, changing the redistricting process in Wisconsin is something Heck said he’s been working on at the helm of Common Cause for the past 25 years.

“We’ve always felt it shouldn’t be politicians deciding how the maps are drawn,” Heck said. “You could see the day when Republicans or Democrats would take control and would draw the lines to favor themselves and prevent the other party from winning.”

Heck said that happens across the country on the part of both parties.

“Illinois is a perfect example where the Democrats have gerrymandered that state, and the Republicans don’t have a chance of ever winning the legislature,” Heck said. 

Seventeen Wisconsin counties have already passed advisory referendums like the one Door County voters will see in November. Eight other Wisconsin counties are also asking voters the question this fall. The referendums are advisory only, and governing bodies are not required to act in accordance with the majority opinion. Still, Heck said, it’s a “powerful public tool.”