Not the Other Way Around
by Mike McCabe, Executive Director
November 30, 2004
Ask people in any part of Wisconsin about the state Legislature, and odds are pretty good you'll hear them say they are embarrassed.
They wonder out loud why our legislators can’t act like grown-ups and work together to get the public’s business done. You hear complaints about the lack of civility among lawmakers and increasing partisan rancor that results in maddening gridlock. It becomes plain as day they think the Legislature is dysfunctional.
But most people can’t quite put a finger on the cause of the death of statesmanship.
There is an overlooked and undiscussed explanation for this phenomenon. One of the largely untold stories behind not only the polarization of politics but also the epidemic of uncontested state legislative races is gerrymandering of voting districts – that is, the rearrangement of legislative districts to favor the party in power.
The crassly political way district maps are drawn using sophisticated computer technology favors current office holders by creating districts where voters favoring them outnumber voters loyal to the opposition. This is done by either concentrating the voting power of the opposition into just a few districts or diluting the opposition’s voting power across many districts.
The term "gerrymander" dates back to the beginning of the republic. The tactic is named for former U.S. vice president Elbridge Gerry, who as Massachusetts governor in 1811 reconfigured election districts in his party’s favor by fashioning one district in a grotesque shape resembling a salamander, inspiring his political opponents to coin the phrase describing the political maneuver in his honor.
The practice remains good for politicians but lethal to representative democracy. Today, modern technology has lent new precision to the art of redistricting - and taken gerrymandering to new lows. Partisan leaders use sophisticated computerized mapping to handpick their voters.
Of the 132 seats in the Wisconsin Legislature, fewer than 20 are now truly competitive. Lopsided districts demoralize voters and make it harder to get fresh blood and new ideas into the Legislature. They also polarize legislative politics. Candidates who appeal to just one side are the natural byproduct of partisan gerrymandering. 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 compromise to get the public’s business done.
There is an antidote for the partisan extremism and demagoguery that one-sided districts promote. We can have more competitive elections and more civility among lawmakers by ending partisan gerrymandering of districts and creating an independent commission in charge of drawing voting districts or a redistricting process such as neighboring Iowa’s.
Iowa’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency redraws the districts using four criteria – equal population, contiguity, compactness, and unity of counties and cities. 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 all five of Iowa’s U.S. House seats are competitive, the only state that can make that claim. Wisconsin, by contrast, cannot lay claim to a single truly competitive House district.
Voters should choose their elected representatives, not the other way around. If Wisconsin wants a democracy worthy of the name, a way needs to be found to curb the excesses of partisan redistricting. We don’t have to look far to find proven models capable of producing more competitive elections and more partisan cooperation. One is right in our backyard.