The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.
As a history teacher, I would ask my students to examine important moments in history that could have an effect on our democracy in the future. One of those moments is when we first saw the word “gerrymander” used in 1812 in the Boston Gazette to describe the way Massachusetts State Senate districts were drawn.
The districts were designed to keep power in the hands of the party that drew the maps. Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed the bill that created the districts. One district was said to resemble the shape of a salamander. Thus, the term “gerrymander” was born.
Gerrymandering creates convoluted legislative districts and makes the outcome of many elections pre-ordained. This leads to a sense of disenfranchisement for both Republicans and Democrats who live in districts that heavily favor one party or the other. Some voters may throw up their hands and say “Why vote? My party can’t win anyway.”
In 1967, the Supreme Court decision Reynolds vs. Sims required population equality in legislative districts. Now, every 10 years, maps in every state must be redrawn to ensure each legislative district has as close to equal population as practicable.
Following the 2020 U.S. Census, legislative districts here in Wisconsin will be re-drawn for the 2022 elections. Making legislative districts in Wisconsin less tilted and more competitive would increase the level of bipartisanship in the Legislature. This is because candidates would need to run their campaigns in ways that appeal to all voters, not just those in their own party.
Making legislative districts as competitive as possible would require candidates to be closer to the center in their views and this could lead to more collaboration and bipartisanship from our legislators.
The last time in 50 years that Wisconsin drew legislative district maps created by a cooperative, bipartisan Legislature was in 1971, after the passing of Reynolds vs. Sims. In 1981, 1991, and 2001, the maps were drawn by federal judges at considerable expense. Our 2011 maps were drawn by highly-paid consultants using sophisticated technology and secrecy agreements to guarantee the majority party holds at least 59 of the 99 Assembly seats every two years.
In 2009, a Democratic-led Legislature rejected a proposal to introduce an independent, non-partisan map-drawing process based on “the Iowa Model.” The Iowa Model has been used successfully in that state and others for 40 years.
Surveys show that, 83 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Republicans, and 76 percent of Independent voters would like to see an end to gerrymandering. Fifty-one county boards have passed advisory resolutions supporting fair maps. Voters in 17 counties and 18 municipalities have overwhelmingly passed advisory referendums asking the Wisconsin Legislature to create a non-partisan procedure for drawing legislative and Congressional district boundaries. And they want it to happen next year, 2021.
In January 2020, Gov. Tony Evers signed an executive order creating a non-partisan People’s Map Commission to develop a non-partisan redistricting procedure, ensuring transparency and inclusiveness from throughout the state. It is my hope that when the proposal is announced, the Legislature will take action to enact reform.
Let’s go back to 1971 when the Legislature passed a bipartisan plan to create fair districts and save the state millions of dollars on lawyers. Let’s use that money instead for roads, broadband, and schools. Let’s put an end to gerrymandering and restore power back to the people of Wisconsin like we did in the Progressive Era when Wisconsin was known as the Laboratory of Democracy.
–Vruwink, D-Milton, represents the 43rd Assembly District.