September 11, 2013

Milwaukee Courier

Legislatively Speaking: The Need for Impartial Redistricting

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Every ten years the state legislature establishes the boundaries for every Congressional, State Senate and Assembly district in a process called redistricting. The redistricting process was created to ensure that our state legislature and congressional districts reflect the diversity of our population in Wisconsin.

Federal law requires that redistricting must comply with the Voting Rights Act to ensure that minority populations have a voice in our government and have an opportunity elect people who reflect our community. Prior to Voting Rights Act, many states manipulated legislative districts to limit the ability minorities to elect our own representatives, a process known as gerrymandering.

In 2011, partisan Republicans devised a redistricting plan for Wisconsin that was developed in secret as a means to disenfranchise Democrats and ensure Republican majority rule for the next ten years.   In developing the redistricting plan in 2011, Assembly Republicans were required to sign secrecy agreements to keep the public and Democratic legislators in the dark of their plans to shift legislative district boundaries to their advantage. The computers used to develop the new district maps were housed at a private law firm in an attempt to skirt the law and keep the records from being available to the public through the open records law.  

The public was also denied access to the research and documents used to develop the redistricting plan. After lawsuits were filed to make the redistricting information available to the public, hundreds of thousands of files were deleted from the Republican computers used for redistricting. Republicans spent over $2 million in taxpayer dollars to defend the secret process used to develop the maps and to keep the information from the public. This is unacceptable.

According to the political watchdogs at Common Cause, the new redistricting map resulted in limiting the number of competitive legislative districts to one out of 33 Senate seats and only 14 of the 99 Assembly districts. The partisan redistricting plan has also had the effect of minimizing the influence and voice of the African American community in Wisconsin. While minor adjustments were made to alleviate the concerns of the Latino community, the GOP redistricting plan reduced the number of African American legislators from eight to five, the fewest number since the election of 1988. Democrats received 53% of the statewide votes for State Assembly in 2012, outpolling Republicans by 174,000 votes. While Democrats handily won the popular vote in all Assembly races, Republicans managed to win 60 of 99 seats in the newly gerrymandered districts.

In 2012, the people of Wisconsin overwhelmingly voted for President Obama and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin. In the state legislature, the partisan redistricting plan led to Republicans controlling 18 of the 33 State Senate seats and 60 of the 99 Assembly districts. The disparity in the number of Democratic voters statewide to those in individual legislative districts can be attributed to the partisan redistricting plan that was designed to give a distinct advantage to Republicans.

That is why I have co-authored Senate Bill 163, which would create a non-partisan redistricting process. Senate Bill 163 would direct the non-partisan Legislative Reference Bureau to develop district maps that are equal in population, meet the requirements in the Voting Rights Act, are compact in size and strictly non-partisan. The bill states that “no district may be drawn for the purpose of favoring a political party, incumbent legislator or member of Congress, or other person or group…for the purpose of augmenting or diluting the voting strength of a language or racial minority group.”

The bill will also create a Redistricting Advisory Commission to ensure that the documents used to create the maps are made available to the public, that public hearings are held before the maps are approved and to provide a detailed report of the issues and concerns that are raised by the public at the hearings.

Creating a non-partisan process for drawing legislative district boundaries is a step in the right direction. We expect and deserve a redistricting process that is open to the public, transparent and non-partisan to make Wisconsin a place where every voice is heard and every vote counts.