Big Changes Happening on August 7, 2019.


Gerrymandering jeopardizes democracy

The fate of our democracy is in the hands of the public. It can only survive if people act in its defense.

There is much concern about the issues threatening our democracy. Among them are gerrymandering efforts, which tip the scale as to who gets elected.

The practice was started in 1812 by Elbridge Gerry who was the governor of Massachusetts. He redrew the state’s electoral district’s into the shape of a salamander so his party would have a better chance at winning. Over the years, both parties have used this tactic to continue their political party’s domination.

Every 10 years, district lines are redrawn following a census. State assembly and senate districts as well as congressional districts are changed based on population changes. The party in power has the advantage. They can pack the opposing party’s voters into a few districts and spread the rest out thinly over the remaining districts so their party’s voters always make up the majority.

The difference today is that software advances in the last decade allow politicians to gerrymander with shocking precision. In 2011, when Wisconsin redrew our current set of voting maps, Republicans were the majority. The politicians in charge hired an expensive law firm to draw our districts, and they did so behind closed doors with little public or bipartisan input.

A result of this gerrymandering showed itself in the 2012 election when Barack Obama won the state by nearly seven points. However, the Republicans had large majorities in the districts they had created and 60% of the state Assembly came under Republican control. They also won 62 percent of Wisconsin’s congressional seats — despite carrying only 49% of the popular vote.

After the 2012 election, there was a bipartisan effort to create a nonpartisan commission to draw electoral maps in Wisconsin. It would have established a process similar to the one used in Iowa, where state legislative and congressional districts are drawn by their nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau, subject to legislative approval.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin did not form a commission at that time. A group of voters took the case to the courts. One argument brought before the court was that legislators were choosing their voters, thus ensuring their own ability to remain in office.

On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court put the kibosh on any hope that the courts could solve the nation’s problem with extreme gerrymandering. In a 5-4 ruling in Rucho v. League of Women Voters of North Carolina, the court ruled that no fair test exists for courts to determine when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far.

After listening to Wisconsin voters in his statewide listening tour after his election, Gov. Tony Evers wanted the formation of an Iowa type commission in his budget. During the debate in the Joint Finance Committee, Democrats offered an amendment that would have created a non-partisan redistricting system in Wisconsin. It is unfortunate legislative Republicans rejected this amendment and instead have chosen to continue to pretend Wisconsin has legitimate districts.

A Marquette Law School poll from April found 72% of Wisconsin voters say they prefer redistricting of legislative and congressional districts by done by a nonpartisan commission. No wonder a global survey by Pew showed 61% of respondents believe politicians don’t care about what the public thinks. When a candidate knows his or her seat is safe in the next election, they are less likely to listen to the constituents, and more responsive to the party bosses that draw their districts.

To push back against gerrymandering, concerned county supervisors are petitioning the state to pass “advisory resolutions” which encourage fairer means of drawing electoral maps, based on Iowa’s redistricting process. In the last three years, 47 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have passed resolutions on gerrymandering.

The Shawano County Board needs to take up this resolution. They were approached in 2017 and educated on the problems associated with gerrymandering. They decided to wait until 2019 to make a decision, which would be closer to the 2020 census. It’s now 2019.

Our democracy is fragile. Gerrymandering contributes to extreme partisanship and erodes our democracy. Districts packed with Democrats tend to elect very liberal candidates while districts that are heavily Republican tend to elect very conservative candidates. When they arrive in Madison, they have nothing in common. They’re less likely to work together to solve our problems.

In the words of Robert LaFollette, “Democracy is a life, and involves continual struggle.” We are in the midst of that struggle. What we do now can make a difference.

Jan Koch is a Shawano resident and the chairwoman for the Shawano County Democratic Party.