Welcoming a new redistricting reform effort

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Common Cause of Wisconsin, which has previously nurtured efforts to reform Wisconsin’s redistricting process, announced this week that another reform effort will be unveiled soon.

That is good news, assuming the new reform legislation is similar to past efforts to give the chore of drawing political boundaries to an independent non-partisan group such as the Legislative Reference Bureau or the Government Accountability Board. The partisan process the state uses now, with the Legislature being responsible for redistricting, is not working well.

The current boundaries of congressional districts and legislative districts effectively disenfranchise many voters and gives the the Republican Party the majority of seats even though Democratic candidates received more votes.

This newspaper has reported previously that Democratic candidates for Congress received 43,000 more votes than Republican candidates, but Republicans won five of the eight seats. It happens because the Democratic voters are crowded into three districts.

Similarly, Republicans have a strong majority in the state Assembly, even though Democratic candidates received more votes. It is because Democratic voters are crowded into districts where their candidates win by large majorities and sometimes Republicans don’t even field a candidate. In the 65th Assembly District, for example, which is entirely within the city limits of Kenosha, first-time candidate Tod Ohnstad, a Democrat, was unopposed in the November election.

According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, another watchdog group that has supported redistricting reform, there used to be 21 tossup districts among the 99 in the Assembly, but now there are only 14. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign considers 50 of the districts — a majority — are strongly Republican and 10 other lean Republican, and that analysis was borne out in the November election, even though more voters selected Democrats.

Common Cause looked at the 16 state Senate races in the last election and found only one of them was competitive.

Although Republicans have majorities now in both chambers of the Legislature, the issue isn’t which party is in power. Both parties have bad records at protecting voters’ interests when it comes to redistricting after every census.

Common Cause points out, as this newspaper has in the past, that it is important for reforms to be enacted years before the next redistricting will take place in 2021. No one knows which party will have the advantage then. “The closer we draw nearer to 2021, the more incumbent legislators will view redistricting reform as a threat to their own re-election,” said a statement from Jay Heck, Common Cause of Wisconsin executive director. “As we draw nearer to that year, the odds that the Legislature will reform itself, diminish. So time is of the essence.”

In an interview at the Kenosha News on Monday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he would not support a reform effort. “I think that the process in general works pretty well,” he said.

We disagree. The process is not working well for voters in districts that lean strongly to one party or the other, and it is not working well for state residents who are for the most part represented by politicians who have few incentives to compromise with the opposing party.

We hope the efforts of Common Cause and others generate sufficient interest in reform to persuade the speaker to change his mind.

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