Let’s End Gerrymandering

Were I given a magic lamp containing a genie who gave me one wish to do something which would improve government, what would that wish be? Without question I would wish that the way redistricting is handled throughout the country would be changed. It would be changed to a system in which the only criteria would be that no one party or group controlled the process, and maps were drawn to keep population equal, districts compact and contiguous, and communities of interest kept together.

Of course, there is no magic bullet (or genie) that will cure all the political problems we contend with every day. But if legislators could no longer “pick their voters” through gerrymandering schemes instead of voters choosing their elected officials at the ballot box, I truly believe the situation would improve significantly.

Engraver and miniature painter Elkanah Tisdale created the infamous “Gerrymander” cartoon for the March 26, 1812, edition of the “Boston Gazette” to represent the partisan redistricting approved in 1812 by Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry. Tisdale turned the principle of partisan redistricting into a cross between Elbridge Gerry and a salamander, thus Gerrymandering. Public domain image.

Under current redistricting systems all around the nation, whichever party is in power creates “safe districts” which protect the candidates they choose and handicap the opposition. This means candidates are more beholden to party elites and primary voters (frequently on the fringes of the left or right) who they need to get the party’s nomination. These are the groups they then listen to rather than their general constituents. They become more entrenched and less able to compromise or take moderate positions, leading to the highly partisan, contentious, and unproductive climate we witness daily in Washington and Madison. As a result, the quality of governance and the ability of government to accomplish the work of the people are significantly diminished.

Plus, all sorts of unfair and undemocratic games are played in which towns, counties, villages and cities are divided – sometimes multiple times – leaving them without any one legislator who has a real interest in fighting for them, much less listening to how the laws passed affect real people in their everyday lives.

Thus, the question arises, what happened to the “consent of the governed” – all the governed, not just those who happened to vote for the winners in the last election?

And how do “we the people” feel about this? Discouraged, angry, frustrated – less likely to run for office, less likely to get involved, and less likely to vote. Understandable reactions, but which only make things worse.

Oh, and did I forget to mention the cost of this type of redistricting in dollars and cents? In Wisconsin, for example, where redistricting has historically been susceptible to partisan influence, controversy, and litigation, the costs were $1.3 million in the 2002 process and $2.1 million in the 2011 process. Wisconsin has not passed redistricting plans without significant and expensive court involvement in more than 60 years.

If there was no other way to do this, we would have to grit our teeth, accept that people will be people, and grin and bear it. But there is another way. It can be found in our neighboring state of Iowa. It may not be a perfect solution, but Iowa adopted a different method of redistricting in the ’80s, after the disgust of their citizens forced a change.

In Iowa, an agency of the state government, their Legislative Services Bureau (in Wisconsin it would be the Legislative Reference Bureau) is required to draw up the maps using a strict criteria (not political demographics) which would keep geographical entities like cities and towns together. It’s a transparent process with at least four hearings around the state. The Legislature has three opportunities to approve the maps before the courts get involved. And because an existing agency does the work, the costs are absorbed in the agency budget, with the most expensive item being the cost of driving the maps to the hearings.

Best of all, it works! Since being adopted in 1981, the legislature has always adopted a version of the maps, no courts have been involved, and Iowa’s districts are compact, contiguous and some of the most competitive in the country.

Maybe such a system wouldn’t work in Wisconsin. Maybe we are crankier than the citizens of Iowa. But, isn’t it worth a try? We already know the system we have doesn’t work and is way too expensive to tolerate any longer. You should know that bills proposing a Wisconsin version of the Iowa system died in Senate and Assembly committees this spring because the committee chairpersons would not even hold hearings on them.

Consider that the next time redistricting needs to occur will be 2021, and many of the legislators in office now will not be serving. Our current legislators could do the “right thing” and fix an expensive and broken system that will not even affect them personally. However, with each passing year, that opportunity will be less and less likely.

Wisconsin citizens need to get as demanding right now as Iowa citizens were in 1981 when they demanded a change in a system that served them so poorly. Even though our current gerrymandered districts aren’t very competitive for this fall election, we can still let the candidates for office know that we demand a change.

This is an idea whose time has come! This genie can’t be put back in the bottle. In fact, let’s pass that lamp around and get this problem fixed!

Susan Kohout is a retired teacher, a wife, and mother of two grown sons. She is a Door County Board Supervisor representing District 6 and a member of the League of Women Voters. Her family has been in Door County since the 1870s.