This week, a crucial trial is under way in Judge Barbara Crabb’s courtroom in Madison. The outcome could have a huge impact not only here in Wisconsin but across the country.
What’s at stake is whether it’s OK for partisan politicians to draw electoral maps in such a rigged way that incumbents basically put a lock on their power. The case, Whitford v. Nichol, is being brought by 12 Democratic voters in Wisconsin who contend that Republican legislators in 2011 gamed the system in a highly manipulative way by drawing district lines that would give Republicans a huge advantage. One method was to stuff as many Democrats into as few districts as possible, thus giving Republicans a leg up in the other districts.
But politicians shouldn’t be allowed to choose their voters; voters should choose their politicians.
The lawsuit says this kind of monkey business with the Wisconsin maps was one of the worst in modern American history.
A strong point of the lawsuit is that it establishes a nonpartisan yardstick for measuring whether one party is taking undue advantage over another in the drawing of district maps. This yardstick can be applied against Republicans in power (in Wisconsin, for instance) and against Democrats in power (in Massachusetts, for instance).
Many observers think the U.S. Supreme Court has been looking for just such a yardstick. The lawsuit has a good chance of prevailing, and the judges have already ruled unanimously in the plaintiffs’ favor on two critical motions. If the plaintiffs win, it would benefit democracy across the country, as voters everywhere would get an equal say in local elections instead of being herded into districts where their vote barely counts.
In Wisconsin, not only were the maps manipulated, but the process itself was the opposite of transparent. Republican leaders huddled behind closed doors in a private, pricey Madison law firm. They wouldn’t let the public in on the process, and they wouldn’t let Democratic officials participate, and they even swore their own Republican members to secrecy about these rigged maps.
In a previous court challenge to these maps, three federal judges denounced this assault on a fair and impartial process. They wrote that “the people of Wisconsin deserve better” than this “peculiarly furtive process adopted by the majority party.”
There is a better way. In Iowa for the past 35 years, nonpartisan staff members of the Legislative Services Bureau have been drawing the electoral maps according to strict guidelines that favor neither party. If it works in Iowa, it can work in Wisconsin.
But first we’ll have to change the climate here, since the manipulation of electoral maps is just one part of the assault on democracy that has been taking place in Wisconsin over the last five years. That assault includes the highly restrictive voter ID law, the cancellation of in-person absentee voting on the weekend, the disbanding of the Government Accountability Board, and the drastic rewriting of our campaign finance laws to let the wealthiest individuals and corporations throw their weight around as never before.
Yes, the people of Wisconsin deserve better. And the current lawsuit finally offers them some hope of obtaining it.
Jay Heck is executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. Andrea Kaminski is executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. Matt Rothschild is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. And Dana Schultz is executive director of Wisconsin Voices.
Issues: Voting and Elections