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Redistricting Reform Is Crucial To Our Democracy

June 18, 2018

While many were not pleased with the Supreme Court decision regarding the Democratic challenge to Wisconsin’s legislative map, drawn by Republicans, it also can be said that a narrow opinion was not surprising.  It would have been a truly historic day had the court taken on the huge constitutional questions about redistricting that many states are forced to reckon with time and again.  But for years the Court has been unwilling to take on the issue of political gerrymandering.

While some partisans applaud the ruling, many others more concerned about the impact of drawing creative district boundaries are left to ask just how rank does a redistricting plan have to be before it runs afoul of the Constitution?

Let me be frank about the matter that is now front and center.  We cannot have a functioning republic if the politicians choose their voters. We cannot have a credible democracy if courts do not make sure that partisan lines do not create unfair voting outcomes.

And let me also be up front by saying that BOTH parties deserve criticism for the secretive and stubborn way they handle redistricting.  Wisconsin Democrats had the power to create a commission for redistricting reform and chose not to proceed.  State Republicans would not even hold a hearing in 2013 on a proposal to create a commission to deal with district lines.  So I am here not to throw stones at any one party.   What I have long argued when it comes to redistricting is not partisan, but rather what is best for the process of governing.

The issue at hand is not new.  Not even close.  All the way back in 1789 Patrick Henry helped draw the lines in Virginia in such a way as to place his enemy, James Madison, in an anti-Federalist district.  In fact before the term ‘Gerrymander” was in vogue there was a term called “Henrymander”.   Times change but the desire of partisans to control power does not.

If the court had ruled today, as our democracy obligates, we would be now talking about how elected officials would be required to design and shape districts that keep communities intact, respects natural geographic boundaries, and does not cower to incumbents who are more intent on keeping their position than meeting the needs of the state or country.  Instead, however, we now have elected representatives who will continue to conduct themselves in a way that puts partisan power over the citizens’ best interest. They will be all too willing to harm our democratic system to preserve the status quo.

Political parties have for too long used the boundaries of districts to inoculate elected officials from the need to truly compete about ideas at election time. What this then allows for is a political system where most battles are fought in low-turnout primaries which curry favor with the partisan extremes.  That cycle repeated over and over creates legislative bodies that are not in touch with the broad center of the electorate.  The outcome is a dysfunctional system where rancor outpaces sound policy.  We witness that every day.

Lately, there has been much discussion about democracy–and the illiberal attempts to undermine it–both at home and abroad.  Foreign Affairs, in May, featured wide ranging coverage of the topic.  At a time when each day seems to bring more stress and burdensome news there is a tendency for citizens to draw back from the headlines.  As with the ruling from the Court Monday, there is no way to escape what is happening to our state and country.  Though some wish to think about other things more pleasing I would argue this is the time we must find fortitude so to step up our efforts as citizens.

We are now into a most important election cycle.  We will be bombarded with ads and attempts to sway and cajole a vote come November.  We will hear about every issue under the sun, but I ask that we ponder if those who want to be elected have a clear sense about the foundations that are essential to making our government function.  It is not good enough to have all the ‘correct’ stands on the issues unless there is a strong appreciation for the legs which support our system of government.

Unless the candidate who asks for your vote can talk with conviction about why it is important to elect people based on a more equitable and level-playing field, then all you are getting is just one more in a long line of reasons for why we are in such a place in our state.

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?

It is up to the voters—and the press–to demand accountability from the candidates.

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