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Redistricting One Key To Less Dysfunction In State Government

January 4, 2018

Process. Process.  Process.  I beat that drum again and again when talking about the way of governing, be it from Washington, D.C. down to my local neighborhood association.  If the process is not fair, open, transparent, and aimed to allow for an outcome which is in the best interests of all then it needs to be called out.

That is why I am so very pleased with Todd Berry, soon-to-be former president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, for taking the time to pen his thoughts about the ills of our state government.  I first met Berry about 1990 (?) as he got a cup of joe at John’s Coffee Shop in the basement of the statehouse.  I recall over the years upon hearing him talk, or more often while reading his thoughts in prepared write-ups, there was always that reflective big-picture thinking which made him stand apart from others.   I have always respected him.

Today I again hold him up high as he speaks to one of the issues that I have long championed—reforming the way political boundaries are drawn in Wisconsin.  I have long advocated for a redistricting commission to be created in our state.

But the problem with our elections goes deeper. Because of how legislative districts are drawn and because of where people choose to live, few districts are competitive with seats regularly changing party hands. That makes August party primaries pivotal. They are low-turnout affairs dominated by “true believers” and party activists, and subject to monied intervention by special interests. To win a primary in Democratic Dane County, a candidate moves to the far left; to win a primary in Republican Waukesha County, the reverse is true: GOP hopefuls compete for a subset of voters on the right.

With the two legislative parties populated with such members, the result is to be expected: partisan bickering, “gotcha politics,” and an inability to compromise.

As we are soon to embark on another election cycle for legislative offices it would be wonderful if candidates, in addition to talking about transportation funds or stronger schools, also talked about the issues that deal with the foundations that are essential to making our government function.  It is not good enough to talk only of better jobs at higher wages when all those laudable goals are in large part unattainable without first grasping why being a process (small d) democrat matters.   Unless the way we elect people is based on a more equitable and level-playing field all the grand ideas we may hold about building a stronger society will be short-changed due to an overly partisan and uncompromising legislature.

Every candidate for election this fall should be called upon by the voters to speak of how political boundaries, as now drawn, create the statehouse dysfunction that the majority of citizens disdain.  Would it not be in the state’s best interest if candidates at every coffee shop gathering, civic-club luncheon, and press interview spoke of how the need for working on the foundations of our governing process would allow for better policy outcomes?

Wisconsin, after all, is so close to seeing why changes in redistricting are beneficial.

Since 1981 Iowa’s congressional and state legislative maps have been drawn by nonpartisan legislative staffers without considering voter registration numbers or the location of incumbents. Their main considerations are keeping districts compact and uniform in population.  And this effort has been met with bi-partisan applause.    Both the Iowa House and Senate overwhelmingly approve the maps.  The outcomes over the decades proves a healthy competitiveness over ideas between the two parties can exist on a level playing field.

The problem is that too many partisans in the Wisconsin Legislature are not able to think beyond their narrow interests, or consider the greater good when it comes to redistricting.  That certainly was the case a number of  years ago when there was not even the ability to have a public hearing in our statehouse about the method employed by Iowa!

Todd Berry is to be applauded for making the case as to how process changes can be made and why they are needed.  Let us hope that at least one of the candidates for governor this year takes up the torch  of needed process reforms and runs with it to all corners of the state.  If there is a leader who will take up that mission I know a following will soon materialize.

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