RC Redistricting Webinar.tif

Participating in a redistricting webinar hosted by Ripon College’s Center for Politics and the people are, clockwise from top left, Fond du Lac County Board chairman and Ripon College political science professor emeritus Martin Farrell, Ripon College religion professor emeritus Brian Smith, League of Women Voters of the Ripon Area President Ellen Sorensen and University of Wisconsin-Madison mathematics professor Jordan Ellenberg, who has written about the connections between geometry and gerrymandering.

Wisconsin’s current state legislative district map is gerrymandered, but there’s a chance the new map — based on 2020 U.S. Census data — will be better and reforms exist to prevent the map from being gerrymandered in the first place.

That was the message during a webinar hosted by Ripon College’s Center for Politics and the People last week Wednesday, titled “Redistricting and its Impact on Voting.” Redistricting is the process of drawing electoral district boundaries.

Speakers included Fond du Lac County Board chairman and Ripon College political science professor emeritus Martin Farrell, and University of Wisconsin-Madison mathematics professor Jordan Ellenberg, who has written about the connections between geometry and gerrymandering.

State Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) was slated to speak during the event, but canceled the day of the discussion.

The panel was moderated by League of Women Voters of the Ripon Area President Ellen Sorensen and Ripon College religion professor emeritus Brian Smith.

In Wisconsin, the state Legislature is tasked with drawing congressional and state legislative district maps. The governor can either approve or veto the Legislature’s maps. If the governor vetoes the maps, they are sent to the courts.

Prior to 2011, the courts often handled redistricting as the Legislature and the governor’s office were held by different political parties. In 2011, Republican Gov. Scott Walker approved maps presented by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

This time around, Democrat Gov. Tony Evers appointed a non-partisan “People’s Maps Commission” to conduct hearings across the state and draw representative maps, although the Republican-led Legislature has drawn its own maps.

Evers is expected to veto the Legislature’s maps, and the process will likely be sent to the courts once again.

Wisconsin’s 2011 state legislative maps, which were drawn in a locked room by Republican party consultants, have been found to be some of the most gerrymandered in the country — specifically at the state Legislative level, Ellenberg noted.

“In a political environment that was not tilting toward Democrats or toward Republicans, in which the popular vote was relatively equal between the two, we probably would have a Republican majority in the Assembly,” he said. “But it probably wouldn’t be the titanic, close to veto-proof majority that we actually see.”

Both political parties participate in gerrymandering across the country. In Illinois, for example, Farrell noted that Republicans are advocating for a non-partisan redistricting process due to gerrymandering done by Democrats.

But how can states prevent gerrymandering?

Giving the duty of drawing the maps to the courts is one way Wisconsin has traditionally avoided gerrymandering, Ellenberg said of past instances of divided government such as in 2001.

“That process can be messy and it takes time, but I think it’s a lot better than one side having the unilateral authority to draw the maps on its own,” he said.

Another way states have worked to prevent partisan gerrymandering is by changing their state constitutions to appoint a non-partisan commission to draw district boundaries, Farrell noted.

He pointed to Iowa, which appoints a non-partisan commission to draw district boundaries.

“The Iowa model, I think, is a good one, and I think it has worked pretty well for them,” Farrell said.

Farrell explained that the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to overturn partisan gerrymandered maps, but left it open to the U.S. Congress and individual states to take actions to prevent gerrymandering.

“The [Supreme Court] majority said they don’t have any such clear-cut mechanism for determining how much partisan gerrymandering is OK, and how much goes too far,” he said, noting Congress outlawed partisan gerrymandering several times in the 19th century.

At the same time, Chief Justice Roberts, who broke the tie and prevented the Supreme Court from overturning partisan gerrymandering, described the practice as “incompatible with democratic principles,” Ellenberg added.

In Wisconsin’s case, he noted the court left it up to the people to elect governors from the opposite party of the Legislature ahead of redistricting, as well as left the door open for the Legislature or Congress to create laws prohibiting gerrymandering.

Redistricting can be done relatively fairly by non-partisan actors. For example, Farrell pointed to the non-partisan Fond du Lac County Board, which recently unanimously approved district maps that will cause at least two County Board supervisors to either run against each other or step down.

“We’ve said incumbent protection is not something we want, so we don’t even want you to look at the addresses of the current supervisors,” he said. “... It was approved unanimously by the committee. It was then passed unanimously by the board, even by the two representatives that were going to have to run against each other.”

In an increasingly polarized political environment, both nationally and at the state level, Farrell noted redistricting has become weaponized.

“It’s really all about power over principle; principle doesn’t seem to mean much anymore,” he said. “It’s all about what maximizes my tribe’s power, and doing whatever that takes.”

That’s why the panel recommended Wisconsin, and other states, move to a non-partisan redistricting process because, as Smith said, “Politicians should not be drawing political boundaries.”

Even so, Ellenberg remained optimistic that, this time around, Wisconsin may be left with a less gerrymandered map when the process gets sent to the courts after an impending veto.

“This is going to end up in the courts, and I do think we’re going to end up with a map in this state that is better than the one we’ve had for the last 10 years,” he said. “It would be a huge upending of all of Wisconsin’s history if [the courts] decided that, unlike any other act passed by the Legislature, this one is impervious to the governor’s veto.”

Written By

Joe Schulz served as the reporter of the Green Laker in 2019 and 2020, before being hired as a reporter for the Commonwealth in October 2020. He is from Oshkosh and graduated from UW-Oshkosh in December with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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