You’ve seen the yard signs around town, but what does it mean to have fair maps and what’s gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering is defined as manipulating the boundaries of and electoral constituency to favor one party or class. The phrase comes from the name of a 19th century governor, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and a salamander, from the supposed similarity between a salamander and the shape of a new voting district on a map drawn when he was in office in 1812.
Lynn Perkins, of Lake Mills, and a member of the Jefferson County Fair Maps Coalition, said 72% of Wisconsinites are for non-partisan redistricting in the state, according to a Marquette Law School poll.
“Our representatives can pretty much render our votes in our communities meaningless, based on their ability to draw district maps to favor on party over another,” Perkins told the Lake Mills Rotary Club Aug. 4.
The goal of partisan gerrymandering is to draw the boundaries of legislative districts so that as many seats as possible are likely to be won by the party’s candidates. Drafters can accomplish this through two practices called packing and cracking. A packed district is drawn to include as many of the opposing party’s voters as possible, which helps the governing party win surrounding districts where the opposition’s strength has been diluted to create the packed district. Cracking splits up clusters of opposition voters among several districts, so that they will be outnumbered in each district.
Rigged maps are most prevalent in states under Republican control. In 2010, the Republicans won a big electoral victory, taking 60 of the 99 seats in the State Assembly. Then in 2012, there was a 430,000-vote swing in the Democrats’ favor, but Republicans still came back with 60 seats.
“Both the Democratic and Republican parties have been using gerrymandering to their advantage,” Perkins said. “To me this is about us as voters saying no this needs to work to our advantage. We want to pick our politicians and not ask our politicians to pick us.”
The Fair Maps Coalition is looking to create a nonpartisan redistricting group to draw the maps, instead of leaving it to politicians.
Perkins said to her the most important reason to end gerrymandering is to stop the gridlock in state politics.
The coalition suggests adopting the same method as used in Iowa to ensure fair maps. Iowa delegates line-drawing to an independent legislative agency, which must conduct public hearings to ensure fair maps. The Iowa Legislature is compelled to vote up or down on the agency’s maps without amendments. Other states utilize nonpartisan, independent, and bipartisan commissions.
“This is not just a Republican issue,” Perkins said. “Some have said it’s against the constitution for there to be a nonpartisan group that would redistrict and that’s just not the case.”
Perkins said the Democrats in the 1980s and 90s had the opportunity to end gerrymandering and didn’t.
“This is a bipartisan issue,” she said. “We’ve got to get it right this time. This can only be done along with a census. If we don’t end gerrymandering this term we won’t have another chance for 10 years.”
Rep. Barbara Dittrich, said in part in a recent op-ed; “My first concern is the creation of another ‘non-partisan’ or ‘bipartisan’ board of unelected officials who are unaccountable to the taxpayers and voters. We have continually seen such a debacle with Wisconsin’s elections and ethics commissions. Secondly, I have grave concerns about how minority communities would be divided up in such plans as the ultimate goal of ‘Fair Maps’ is to create equal numbers of people with opposing views in each legislative district. This would mean dividing up Milwaukee and Madison minority communities like pizzas, which would poorly represent their neighborhoods and concerns. Third, I think that we are kidding ourselves if we believe that we can create a ‘non-partisan’ commission. Anyone with eyes to see today’s tense political climate knows that one side always has the upper hand in such commissions, thus, making them anything but impartial. Again, look no further than the current Wisconsin Election Commission for reference.”
The non-binding referendum regarding redistricting will be on the November ballot in Jefferson County, along with seven others across the state. About 50 county board have passed resolutions urging the State Legislature to pass a law to give the state fair maps.
“It’s a way to show our politicians we care about this issue,” Perkins said.