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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Most Political Redistricting Map in More Than 50 Years

Republican power grab diminishes your voting choices

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The Republican-drawn legislative redistricting map is a shocking assault on the voting rights of Wisconsin citizens.

Instead of revising the current legislative map to retain the state's competitive swing districts, Gov. Scott Walker and Republican leaders have chosen to decrease the number of competitive districts and marginalize their Democratic rivals. The vast majority of districts will be either very safe Republican or Democratic seats, which means that you, the voter, will have much less real choice.

That will turn Wisconsin, a moderate swing state with razor-thin electoral margins statewide, into a state with a solidly Republican-led Legislature for the next decade. A swing district that currently may be 47% or 53% Republican, which means that the voters decide which party's candidate will win the election, will instead become a 60% Republican district, making it virtually impossible for a Democrat to win.

Since Wisconsin is pretty much a 50/50 state with respect to the statewide vote, what happens to the Democratic voters? The new Republican redistricting map will pack Democrats into a limited number of safe Democratic seats, such as the inner-city districts. Those districts will become much more Democratic. Essentially the Republican map takes the state's 99 Assembly districts and packs Democrats into about 41 or 42 safe Democratic Assembly seats, with huge Democratic majorities. This enables Republicans to easily win the other 57 or 58 Assembly districts—a very comfortable margin for the Republicans. The Senate maps are drawn in a similar way.

The map is so partisan that Republicans would maintain a permanent majority in both houses of the state Legislature for the next 10 years, at which point a new map could be drawn. This 10-year control of the state Legislature will be maintained even in elections in which Republicans win fewer votes than Democrats statewide.

This is utterly unlike the current legislative map, which allows voters to give both Democrats and Republicans the majority in the state Legislature, depending on voter turnout, political issues and the strengths and weaknesses of candidates.

The new map, however, changes all of that. Going forward, it will be the demographics that determine whether an Assembly or Senate district is held by a Republican or a Democrat. Thanks to the map drawn by Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers, Democrats will be a permanent minority in the state Legislature even if they win the majority of votes in upcoming elections.

Besides taking real voting choice from constituents, these very partisan, Republican-made districts are essentially breeding grounds for extremists. A tea party candidate could not win in a competitive swing district, but the extreme right has a chance to win and hold a seat in a very Republican district because all you have to do is win the Republican primary. Extreme partisan legislators usually come from either safe Republican or Democratic seats.

Reasonable, rational voters are the real losers with these highly partisan legislative maps.

A Free Ride for Alberta Darling

So how will the new legislative map affect Milwaukee, the biggest and most diverse city in the state?

Not surprisingly, it pushes any significant block of minority voters currently in suburban, Republican-leaning areas into traditionally Democratic districts that already have high minority populations. That diminishes the power of the minority vote and packs the Democrats together, which some believe violates federal voting rights laws.

It also allows Republican-leaning swing districts on the edges of Milwaukee County to be pushed outward into the far suburbs. Those districts will now be overwhelmingly white and Republican. In our area, the districts most affected are those held by state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) and Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), as well as the state representatives in those districts.

It's impossible to overlook the fact that Darling comes out a big winner in this map. Darling, once a moderate Republican who turned into a far-right ideologue to further her career, is up for recall this summer. If she survives against Democratic challenger state Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Whitefish Bay), Darling will have a much easier district to hold if she runs for re-election in 2012. But if Pasch wins in the Aug. 9 recall election, she'll have an almost impossible time winning re-election in her new district, which will be overwhelmingly Republican in the 2012 elections.

In Racine and Kenosha, the Republican map is decreasing the power of voters to such a degree that residents should be incensed. Currently, there are two very competitive battleground districts in Racine and Kenosha counties, which is good for democracy. One year voters will elect Republicans, the next election they might elect Democrats. But the Republican mapmakers decided to create two safe seats instead, ensuring that at least one Republican will be elected each cycle and again taking away real choice from the voters. It also protects the seat of freshman Sen. Van Wanggaard. Wanggaard is a tea party favorite who is outside the mainstream politics of Wisconsin, so the Republicans understand that the only way to keep him in office is to make the district overwhelmingly Republican.

The map does other strange things throughout the state. It creates oddly shaped districts to preserve Republican incumbents' power as the demographics of their districts change. And over and over again, it consolidates Republican power in shocking, unprecedented ways. Redistricting experts we've consulted say they've never seen anything like it.



Conservative Smears Are False

In response to these partisan redistricting maps, you'll hear over and over from Walker supporters and in the conservative corporate-owned local media that Democrats did the same thing when they held power during redistricting periods, held once a decade after the U.S. Census.

But that allegation is just not true.

The last time the state was redistricted was in 2001. Back then, power was split between a Democratic Senate, a Republican Assembly and Republican Gov. Scott McCallum. As a result, nonpartisan courts drew the map. It benefited neither Democrats nor Republicans. The proof is that Wisconsin was a swing state that sometimes gave power to the Republicans, sometimes to the Democrats.

In fact, you'd have to go back several decades to find an example of when one party held all of the power in the state. In the meantime, the courts have drawn the legislative districts, preserving the power of voters and keeping the districts fairly competitive.

That's all changed now.

As we've seen, Walker and his allies in the Legislature have all of the power and absolutely no interest in protecting voting rights. After all, these are the same folks who have changed voting laws to make it more difficult for traditionally Democratic voters to cast a ballot; busted public employee unions so that they can barely operate on a day-to-day basis, let alone engage politically; and run fake Democrats in this summer's recall elections to confuse voters and retain their hold on power for an additional four weeks.

Unfortunately, Republican legislative leaders are ramming this redistricting map through before the recall elections will be decided, ensuring that even if they do lose the majority in the state Senate in August, they'll have a stranglehold on power for the next decade. Traditionally, after the census numbers are sent to the states, the local units of government draw ward maps, which become the building blocks for the state government to build the legislative maps. In their efforts to jam this through the Legislature, the Republican majorities are drawing their maps and the local units of government are going to have to work with what the state forces on them.



State Supreme Court Will Rule in Favor of Republicans

Unfortunately, there isn't much that Democrats and fair-minded Wisconsinites can do about this new map. Republicans are in charge of the governor's office and both houses of the state Legislature. They are in charge of the once-a-decade redistricting process.

While Democrats and their allies can attempt to sue the mapmakers in federal court because the redistricting plan violates various aspects of the Voting Rights Act, can they get a fair hearing? The Republicans will argue that it does not explicitly violate federal law and that, if there are issues, they should be decided in state court. The U.S. Supreme Court has stated recently that it will defer to the state courts on any state redistricting lawsuits, except, of course, those that explicitly violate federal voting rights laws. If it ends up in state court, this means that the state Supreme Court will decide. And Wisconsin's seven-member Supreme Court has a four-person right-wing majority led by Justice David Prosser, who just won re-election after questions of election fraud in Waukesha County. Prosser's pal Justice Michael Gableman also was elected under a cloud of corruption and was the subject of a disciplinary action by the Wisconsin Judicial Commission.

As we've seen, the conservative majority on the state's highest court will not hesitate to protect their partisan allies in the two other branches of government. The conservative justices are so willing to do the bidding of their Republican allies that Prosser allegedly attempted to choke Justice Ann Walsh Bradley just because she didn't want to adhere to a Legislature-driven deadline for a court decision on the open meetings law.

It's highly unlikely that the current Republican-friendly majority on the court would decide a redistricting-related lawsuit in a fair manner. That's why it was so important for Walker, his deep-pocketed benefactors and Republican legislators to return Prosser, a former Republican Assembly leader, to the bench in April's elections.

And that's why Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers have felt free to create the most partisan legislative map in this state's history and steal power from the voters. Nothing will stop them—not their Democratic colleagues in the state Legislature, not a partisan state Supreme Court, not even widespread voter outrage. Welcome to the new Wisconsin.

Louis Fortis is a former Democratic legislator and editor/publisher of the
Shepherd Express.

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