by CHRIS ROGERS
On April 6, voters in conservative-leaning Buffalo County overwhelmingly supported a call to reform the way political maps are drawn in Wisconsin. A referendum on Fair Maps — a proposal to create an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission — passed with 1,306 yes votes (65 percent) to 562 no votes (28 percent).
Voters in three other Wisconsin counties backed similar referendums on April 6, joining 55 out of Wisconsin’s 72 counties that have either passed a voter referendum or County Board resolution in support of nonpartisan redistricting, according to Wisconsin Fair Maps.
Currently, maps of Wisconsin state and Congressional districts are redrawn by state legislators following each Census. Supporters of the Fair Maps proposal say both parties have abused this process to gerrymander districts — breaking them up in ways that make it easier for members of their party to be elected — and argue Wisconsin should follow Iowa's lead in creating a non-political process for redrawing district boundaries. The April 6 referendum asked Buffalo County voters, “Should the Wisconsin legislature create a nonpartisan procedure for the preparation of legislative and congressional district plans and maps?” The vast majority said yes.
“We were pretty happy,” said Buffalo County resident Renee Schoonover, who helped push for the referendum with her husband, Terry Schoonover. They and other citizens asked the County Board to place the referendum on this spring’s ballot and sent postcards to voters with information about the proposal.
“For me, I’m tired of gridlock,” Terry said when asked why he supports nonpartisan redistricting. “These legislators are safe. They run unopposed, so nothing gets done … They don’t answer to the people because they’re safe,” he added.
While Republicans are currently in control of the Wisconsin State Assembly, there have been years when Democrats held redistricting power and the issue could affect either party in the future, the Schoonovers noted.
At the state level, many Republican leaders oppose changes to the state’s redistricting system, while Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has advocated for them. Many capitol watchers expect the state’s upcoming redistricting process to end in a legal battle, since Republicans control the Assembly that draws maps while Evers has the power to veto them.
Political fights over redistricting waste the state’s money, Terry said, pointing to millions spent on past lawsuits challenging district maps. “Iowa has had a fair maps process, a nonpartisan process, for four decades and it has had very little litigation around the drawing of their maps,” he stated.
Can a new system be truly insulated from politics? “I think the number one goal is to make the process more transparent,” Renee responded. Citing the state’s redistricting following the 2010 Census, she said, “The districts drawn behind closed doors and the algorithms they used were not shared with the public.”