Saturday afternoon I had a great political discussion on my front lawn with a friend who is a lobbyist in Wisconsin. We talked about the latest Marquette Law School poll and how it strongly favored the statewide races for Hillary Clinton and Russ Feingold. But when we got to the point of breaking down the path for Democrats to retake the state senate we both agreed there was really only one solid pickup for the minority party come November.
Such is the state of politics where Democrats cast more votes in the last legislative elections but Republicans control with an iron fist the majority in the statehouse. The reason for that is the method used to draw district lines in a purely partisan fashion after each census.
To be fair Democrats also used the partisan tools available to them for drawing lines when they had the majority. But the degree of brazenness for drawing boundaries has increased under the current Republican majority.
With that in mind it was most interesting to watch former Governor Jim Doyle discuss with Greg Nuemann on Capital City Sunday the need for our state to update the way political boundaries are drawn.
Doyle admitted it was an “opportunity lost” when in 2006 a Democratic majority in each house of the legislature did not act on redistricting reform. He had put forth a plan which he tried to sell across the state but was met with more yawns than strong support.
After having seen the degree to which the redistricting system is now broken Doyle seems to have found a stronger voice on the subject. And he is most correct when saying “a great reform for American democracy would be to move to some kind of non-partisan commission to do the redistricting.”
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.
What were the results of the efforts of the nonpartisan staffers during the last redistricting cycle in Iowa?
The Iowa House approved the new maps on a 90-7 vote, and the Senate weighed in with a vote in favor, 48-1. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad enthusiastically supported the maps. He acknowledged that the new maps allow for a healthy competitiveness between the two parties.
The problem is that too many partisan heads in the Wisconsin Legislature are not able to think beyond their narrow interests, and consider the greater good when it comes to redistricting. That certainly was the case when there was not even the ability to have a public hearing in our statehouse about the method employed by Iowa!
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. One of the more outstanding figures offered over the past year about immigration reform is that 70% of Republican congressional districts around the nation have less than 10% Hispanic/Latino voters. In some cases that can be explained, but in many others it is due to crafty manipulation of district maps. That type of political chicanery from both sides of the aisle creates far more problems when it comes to solving issues than perhaps anything else other than the heavy amounts of campaign money that is allowed to be raised.
I wish Doyle had been successful in 2006. I also wish that Democratic candidates were using the issue of redistricting as a campaign issue this fall so to educate the voters in an attempt to move this matter further along.
I have long argued that the three biggest needs for political reform in the country are 1) controlling the amount of money spent on campaigns, 2) allow non-partisan commissions to draw political boundaries, and 3) allow for merit selection of state supreme court justices.
Until these matters can be resolved there will be structural flaws with not only elections but policy-making.