by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director
May 25, 2016
A crucial trial got under way this week in a federal courtroom in Madison. The outcome could have a huge impact not only here in Wisconsin but across the country.
What's at stake is whether it's OK for partisan politicians to draw electoral maps in such a rigged way that incumbents basically put a padlock on their power. The case, Whitford vs. Nichol, is being brought by 12 Democratic voters in Wisconsin who contend that Republican legislators in 2011 gamed the system in a highly manipulative way by drawing district lines that would give Republicans a huge advantage. One method was to stuff as many Democrats into as few districts as possible, thus giving Republicans a leg up in the other districts.
Adam Foltz, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, acknowledged on the stand that the Republican leadership consulted with a political scientist who used sophisticated computer modeling to draw a variety of maps that predicted an increase in GOP seats. The leadership could manipulate the maps to see how a line drawn here or there might expand their base. The leadership ultimately chose one of the maps that would give them the most seats. It predicted a gain of strongly Republican and leaning Republican seats from 40 to 52.
The lawsuit says this kind of monkey business with Wisconsin maps was one of the worst in modern American history.
A strong point of the lawsuit is that it establishes a nonpartisan yardstick for measuring whether one party is taking undue advantage over another in the drawing of district maps. This yardstick can be applied against Republicans in power (in Wisconsin, for instance) and against Democrats in power (in Massachusetts, for instance).
Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court has been looking for just such a yardstick, so the lawsuit has a good chance of prevailing, no matter which side appeals. If the plaintiffs win, it would benefit democracy across the country, as voters everywhere would get an equal say in local elections instead of being herded into districts where their votes barely count.
Politicians shouldn't be allowed to choose their voters; voters should choose their politicians.
In Wisconsin, not only were the maps manipulated, but the process itself was the opposite of transparent. Republican leaders huddled behind locked doors in a private pricey Madison law firm. They wouldn't let the public in on the process. They wouldn't let any Democrats inside the door. They wouldn't let Republican members see any but their own districts. And then they even swore their own members to secrecy about these rigged maps.
In a previous court challenge to these maps, three federal judges denounced this assault on a fair and impartial process. They wrote that "the people of Wisconsin deserve better" than this "peculiarly furtive process adopted by the majority party."
There is a better way. In Iowa for the past 35 years, nonpartisan staff members of the Legislative Services Bureau have been drawing the electoral maps according to strict guidelines that favor neither party. If it works in Iowa, it can work in Wisconsin.
Yes, the people of Wisconsin deserve better. And the current lawsuit finally offers us some hope of obtaining it.
This commentary originally appeared as a column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.