August: Redistricting should be more transparent

2011 Columns

Every ten years, legislative and congressional district boundaries are redrawn to account for population shifts reflected in the U.S. Census. It’s an important process, one that merits months of public deliberation and scrutiny.

But that’s not what happens in Wisconsin. Our state’s redistricting process is handled almost completely out of public view by the party in power and then, once challenged, it heads to the courts.

The plan just approved by the legislature to remap Wisconsin’s political boundaries starting with the 2012 fall elections was drawn up in secret during much of the first half of 2011 by law firms hired by Republican legislative leaders at a cost to taxpayers of at least $350,000.

This plan was publicly released Friday, July 8, and got a single public hearing on July 13 in Madison. Then it was promptly passed by the Legislature and sent on Gov. Scott Walker to be signed into law.

The process moved so fast that the Legislature had to change a state law that prohibited it from redrawing legislative and congressional district lines before local governments complete redistricting for city and county elected officials. Communities that have already completed this task must redo their maps to accommodate the state.

No matter which party is handling it, redistricting in Wisconsin is done mostly in secret by those whose jobs depend on the outcome. Other states do it differently.

Wisconsin is among 28 states that rely on the Legislature to handle redistricting and the governor to approve or veto the final product. Nine states have commissions whose members are selected by the governor and other elected officials, and 13 states use a hybrid method where the Legislature and a commission or advisory council work together.

In Iowa, often cited as a model for redistricting reform, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Bureau draws three plans based on population equality, compactness, contiguity and the goal of keeping counties and cities intact. A five-member citizen advisory committee provides information to the bureau and conducts at least three public hearings.

The Iowa legislature has picked one of the nonpartisan agency’s plans ever since this process was started in 1980, and none of the plans have been challenged in court. In signing this year’s plan, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said his state’s redistricting process “really gives the people an opportunity to choose their congressmen and their representatives and senators in a competitive system that isn’t really designed to skew it in favor of one party or the other.”

Another model of openness is Colorado, which uses an 11-member commission to draw legislative districts. Its members are picked by the General Assembly, governor and Supreme Court chief justice.

Between May and July this year, the commission held 11 public meetings and hearings in Denver and scheduled 20 hearings around the state in August on redistricting. The public may sign up for email updates of the commission’s work, and summaries and audio recordings of its meetings are available.

In California, a 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission consists of five Republicans, five Democrats and four Independents. Its website includes interactive maps of proposed districts and offers a video that tells citizens why they should get involved in the process. The commission scheduled more than 60 public meetings or hearings between April and August.

So Wisconsin has a number of models to change the way redistricting is handled. A good place to start is to find one that opens up the process to the people it affects.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Michael Buelow is a former Associated Press reporter and research director for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.