Drawing a Better Wisconsin

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

September 25, 2010

When we elect a new state legislature and governor this fall, we will be choosing who we want to deal with a broken state budget, a hobbled economy and a long list of other concerns.

Whether we’re thinking about it or not, we also will be choosing who will redraw congressional and legislative district lines and thereby determine who has the upper hand politically for the next decade.

In a democracy, voters are supposed to choose their representatives. Every 10 years, it’s the other way around as our representatives get to choose their voters. The way it’s worked is that legislators draw new district lines after each census, and the lines they draw tend to be tailor-made for their reelection. Democrats find ways to pack as many Democratic voters as possible in their districts, and Republicans load their districts with GOP voters.

In the vast majority of congressional and state legislative contests, the outcome is a foregone conclusion because of the lopsided political makeup of the districts. Much is made of how Wisconsin is neither a Republican red state nor a Democratic blue state, but rather has a distinctly purplish hue. As a classic swing state, reflected in the state’s battleground status in presidential elections, one might imagine Wisconsin would have a significant number of competitive districts. But individual districts are bright red or dark blue.

And they generally are not competitive politically. Since 2000, only three U.S. House races have been competitive (with a margin of victory within 10 points) – the 2000 election in the 2nd Congressional District and the 2006 and 2008 elections in the 8th. Depending on the election year, either 116 or 117 state legislative seats are up for grabs. Over the last 10 years, the number of competitive elections for the legislature has ranged from a low of 10 to a high of 29.

Since 2000, state legislative incumbents have been reelected 95% of the time. In 2000, incumbents won 102 times and lost three. In 2002, they went 89-6. In 2004, 91-4. In 2006, 97-9. And in 2008, 99-3.

Not only do politically lopsided districts make elections less competitive and voters less powerful and less able to get new blood and fresh ideas into the legislature, but they also contribute to hyper-partisan, polarized politics that make compromise nearly impossible on controversial issues. One-sided districts tend to produce candidates who appeal to just one side. Squeezed out are candidates who appeal to independents or voters of both parties. The result is a legislature of fierce partisans, with fewer members willing to reach across the political divide to get the public’s business done.

It has cost us a pretty penny to get these dismal results, as state politicians have spent huge sums of taxpayer money on sophisticated map-drawing technology, technical experts and political consultants to help them draw new district lines. According to various sources, the total amount spent on redistricting was somewhere between $2.6 million and $2.9 million for the 2000 remapping of the state. This represented a significant cost overrun. The governor had put $827,200 in the state budget for redistricting costs. Even after spending all that money, the legislature couldn’t finish the job and the task was thrown to the courts. In fact, federal courts have had to step in the past three decades.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have more competitive elections and more civility among lawmakers by creating an independent commission in charge of drawing voting districts like the one in Arizona or we could embrace the changes neighboring Iowa made some years ago.

Iowa’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency redraws the districts obeying criteria spelled out in state law. By law, the agency must ignore such factors as previous election results, the addresses of incumbents, or any other demographic information. Not coincidentally, races for four of Iowa’s five U.S. House seats are perennially competitive and the fifth sometimes is too.

It is possible to draw a better Wisconsin. There are proven ways to curb the excesses of partisan redistricting and thereby produce more competitive elections and more partisan cooperation. One way can be found right next door.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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