Ex-senators denounce gerrymandering at Lodi Fair Elections Project presentation

January 18, 2018 GMT

LODI — The Lodi High School students who made up about half of the audience for Wednesday’s Fair Elections Project presentation probably knew, from their U.S. history classes, the meaning and origin of the word “gerrymandering.”

Two former state senators — one Republican, one Democrat — told the approximately 80 people in the audience at the school that gerrymandering is anything but ancient history.

It’s happening in Wisconsin, said former Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville.

And, he said, he hopes the U.S. Supreme Court will declare Wisconsin’s process for the 2011 redrawing of the state and federal legislative districts to be unconstitutional.

“We believe gerrymandering is very bad for democracy,” Cullen said. “It destroys the value of your vote.”

The other half of the “we” to which Cullen alluded is a former Senate colleague of his, Dale Schultz, a Richland Center Republican who has joined Cullen on a statewide tour promoting the Fair Elections Project. The project’s goal is to reform the state’s system of drawing new legislative boundaries every 10 years, after the U.S. census.

Their appearance in Lodi was sponsored by the Lodi Optimist Club.

Schultz said he is a proud and loyal member of the Republican Party, which controlled both houses of the Legislature in 2011, when the most recent redistricting took place. However, he said, no party should have unlimited power to shape districts in a way that ensures that party’s continued dominance for the next decade.

In Wisconsin, it’s the Legislature that controls the redrawing of boundaries not only for state Assembly and Senate seats, but also for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Cullen said the computer age has afforded unlimited access to information on individuals living in a particular area, including how they typically vote.

That makes it easier than ever, he said, to draw district lines to ensure a particular party will dominate elections in that district.

The Supreme Court has heard arguments in a challenge of Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting, which, according to Cullen, is the first challenge of gerrymandering allegedly for political purposes that the high court has agreed to hear. But the decision isn’t likely to come down, he said, until this summer, after the court has heard a similar case involving one district in Maryland, which opponents contend was gerrymandered to favor Democrats.

Even if the Supreme Court strikes down Wisconsin’s most recent redrawing of districts, Cullen said, it will likely be too late to allow new boundaries to be drawn in time for the November election.

Schultz said people all over Wisconsin are expressing outrage about gerrymandering.

“People are angry,” he said. “They voice their anger. They think they’re being cheated.”

Sauk County Supervisor Bill Wenzel of Prairie du Sac said he was unhappy with the 3-2 decision Tuesday of the Sauk County Board’s Legislative and Executive Committee to turn back efforts to include a countywide non-binding referendum regarding redistricting on the spring non-partisan election ballot on April 3.

Wenzel said his question to fellow supervisors who opposed the referendum was this: “If the public can’t have a voice, then who are you working for, and who are you not working for? That is a rough question, and nobody answered it.”

Iowa model

About an hour before the Fair Elections Project presentation in Lodi, the Columbia County Board of Supervisors voted 13-11 against a resolution that would have put the County Board on record as favoring redistricting reform.

Among the people attending the presentation was Columbia County Supervisor Nancy Long of Lodi — who had some questions about Iowa’s non-partisan process of redistricting.

Cullen and Schultz said Iowa’s process, in effect since 1980, entails having a state agency draw new district lines after each census, based on geography, not on which state lawmakers currently live in a district or whether their party would be likely to win elections there.

Cullen displayed a map of Iowa state Senate districts, whose “right angles” indicate, he said, that the districts were drawn fairly.

In Iowa, Schultz said, the Legislature must approve new district boundaries, after they’ve been vetted by citizens in four statewide open meetings. But lawmakers don’t do the actual boundary drawing.

If the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting as unconstitutional, Cullen said, the high court will likely determine the criteria for deciding whether any subsequent redrawing is indeed non-partisan — and if federal judges determine it’s not, they would reject the new legislative map.

Cullen said the argument in favor of Wisconsin’s current process is something to the effect of, “The party that won the election has the right to make the decisions on district boundaries.”

And, Schultz noted, Democrats also were accused of skewing the redistricting process in their favor, when they held sway in the Legislature.

It doesn’t matter, he said, that both parties may have gerrymandered when given the opportunity.

“There was a time in Wisconsin,” Schultz said, “when we were very proud of being independent, when we were very proud of representing the people first and the party second.”