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State Lawmakers Push to Change Redistricting Process

Justin Kern

Redistricting has become a hot topic across the country. Two Wisconsin legislators will talk about the issue Monday at the state Capitol.

They’re unhappy with the process used here.

Republicans were in the majority at the start of the decade, so they redrew Wisconsin’s Congressional and Legislative boundaries. It was the case in quite a few states.

The ruling party drew districts to solidify partisan control – they’re either dominated by Republicans or Democrats, with very few districts up for grabs. Lawsuits followed.

David Canon testified at several trials, that the process is flawed. He’s a political science professor at UW-Madison with a focus on redistricting.

“The current process has two main problems. One is in the process itself, which is highly contentious, it always ends up in court, costs taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees and ends up with a set of districts that aren’t very competitive, they tend to help the majority party,” Canon says.

In Wisconsin’s case, several organizations successfully sued in 2011, claiming legislative leaders failed to create an Assembly district with a majority of Latino voters. Two districts on Milwaukee’s near south side had to be reconfigured.

Canon says several states are looking at the method Iowa uses. A neutral organization has been redrawing that state’s political boundaries since 1980. Ed Cook serves as legal counsel.

“By doing it the way we do it, we resolve it quickly, there’s been no litigation in regards to the plan that’s been enacted. Both sides know what the lines are and given that we’re a fairly evenly split state, both sides feel they’re given the opportunity to send more members to Congress or to gain control of the legislature,” Cook says.

One person calling for Wisconsin to change its redistricting process is state Rep. Mandela Barnes of Milwaukee. He’s co-sponsoring a bill that would assign the job to the non-partisan Legislative Reference Bureau.

“In the state of Wisconsin, we have a very few, I want to say about five competitive seats in the Assembly out of 99. There are no competitive Congressional seats after the way the redistricting was done,” Barnes says.

No matter what system Wisconsin uses, Republican state Senator Glenn Grothman foresees someone challenging the resulting boundaries.

“There’s no good way to do it. There’s really not a comfortable way to do it, right?” Grothman asks.

Even if the non-political Legislative Reference Bureau does the job.

“When we allow unelected civil servants to do things, I don’t think the public is necessarily happy. I could easily see there being lawsuits either way, because people will argue the LRB did it the wrong way,” Grothman says.

Grothman doesn’t see the proposed change going anywhere. The bill has been languishing in committee since last spring.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.