Fair Maps Need Political Hardball

One of the most significant impediments to moderation is gerrymandering. The only sure way to beat that in Wisconsin is for the governor to veto the budget if he doesn’t get a fair redistricting process.

The Census Bureau just announced that the data needed to redraw legislative maps won’t be available until September. That’s actually great news. Why? Because the state budget typically passes in July. What’s the connection? See below.

During the last redistricting, ten years ago, Republicans controlled both houses of the Wisconsin legislature and the governor’s office. That gave them free rein to draw the most highly partisan maps in state history. In the legislative elections since then, typically the GOP candidates get anywhere from 47% to 53% of the total vote in all districts. Yet, except for a couple of brief periods when the legislature was out of session, they have held a lock on the Senate and Assembly. Today, they hold 20 of 33 Senate seats with one vacancy that is in a solid Republican district. The GOP controls 60 of 99 Assembly districts with one vacancy that is also likely to remain in Republican hands.

If maps were drawn to create the most competitive districts possible, the Republicans still might have a slight edge. That’s because Democrats cluster in cities, making the geography harder to spread them into enough districts. In any event, much slimmer margins would force the majority party to work with the minority. More importantly, it would produce legislators of both parties who were more moderate in their views.

To get fair maps Gov. Evers needs to threaten to veto the budget

Right now very few legislators worry about the general election. All they need is an “R” or a “D” next to their name and they’re in. What keeps them up at night is a primary from their right or left. This forces them to the extremes. The result, for example, is that no state COVID bill has been passed and signed since April. It’s not that compromise was impossible. In fact, the Senate and the governor did come to an agreement. But the extreme conservatives in the Assembly loaded the bill down with poison pills they knew would force a veto. They were more interested in punching ideological hot buttons for their base voters than results for Wisconsinites.

Which brings us to the next round of redistricting. Things are different this time because we have a Democratic governor. What will surely happen is that the Republican legislature will, once again, pass highly partisan maps. But this time the governor will veto them. It will all wind up in court and the only question is, which court?

If a federal court ends up with the case, it’s possible that the court will appoint a special master to draw fair maps. Moderation wins. But if the case is ultimately decided by the state Supreme Court (where Republicans are already trying to steer it) then all bets are off. That court is controlled 4-3 by conservatives. The wild card there is Justice Brian Hagedorn, who has surprised everyone by sometimes siding with the liberals. Still, at best, it’s anybody’s guess how that would turn out.

The best way to assure fair maps, and the moderation it would promote, is for the governor to force it by use of his veto threat. The only bill that must pass every two years is the state budget. Evers will introduce his budget this week and, typically, it is sent back to him for his signature around July 4th.

Here’s what Evers could do. He could put a bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting commission into his budget and he could announce that he simply won’t sign any budget that comes back to his desk without it. Since census data won’t be ready until September anyway, that means no time will be lost.

Granted, this isn’t a Tony Evers kind of move. He doesn’t often play hardball and, for the most part, I appreciate that. But this is one case where employing hardball tactics would be in the service of long-term moderation, reason and bipartisanship in our politics.

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