Late last October we presented an editorial arguing in favor of Wisconsin adopting some form of explicitly nonpartisan redistricting process. New evidence emerged recently that is prompting us to return to the issue.
It seems, based on a recent poll, that the question isn’t as partisan as one might think. There appears to be strong support nationally and across political lines for an end to the gerrymandering practices parties use to retain power in excess of what vote tallies suggest they should have.
The poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center and the Associated Press asked adults nationwide about a range of questions, but it was gerrymandering that stood out. More than six in 10 respondents said states “drawing legislative districts that intentionally favor one party” is a major problem. Another 26% said it was a minor problem.
The exact responses varied a bit by party, as might be expected. But strong majorities in all groups said gerrymandering is a significant problem for the country. That included 74% of Democrats, 60% of Republicans and 63% of independents.
It’s hard to think of any other issue that generates that strong a response across party lines. Far more people view gerrymandering as being more problematic than either voter suppression or illegal voting — issues the two major parties spend far more time screaming about.
The poll’s followup question asked whether people supported “requiring states to set up independent and nonpartisan commissions to draw legislative districts.” Support for such a requirement, which would likely require a Constitutional amendment, was lower among all groups than overall concern about gerrymandering was. Far more people were neutral on that question.
What stood out was how rare hostility to the idea was. Only 8% of people overall were either strongly or somewhat opposed to the prospect. Democrats, Republicans and independents were all within a single percentage point of each other, with no more than 8% opposition in any group. People may be lukewarm on the idea, but they don’t seem to hate it.
As we said in October, Wisconsin is widely viewed as a heavily-gerrymandered state. Right now the lines are drawn by Republicans to favor Republicans. But there is zero evidence to suggest Democrats would do otherwise were they in power. States with strong Democratic legislative majorities have done much the same thing.
What the evidence suggests is that people are very much aware of the games legislators are playing with their districts and that they’re frankly sick of them. Creation of districts that are all but guaranteed seats for a party encourage pandering to the fringes. If the risk to an incumbent is losing a primary, survival demands that the incumbent ignore compromise and stand for re-election as an ideologically pure paragon. It’s a recipe for bitter fighting, increasing partisanship and less work getting done in Madison or in Washington.
History shows extremists make lousy leaders. So why are we tolerating a system that rewards such behavior?
Look, no majority lasts forever. The current approach invites retaliatory actions when it changes. There is a better way, and it appears most Americans favor it.
Wisconsin needs a nonpartisan redistricting approach. It might sacrifice margins in the short term, but it would be an investment in the long term health of our state’s government. The kind of rancor and bull-headed power plays that too often define the state’s political leadership isn’t serving Wisconsin residents. It’s encouraging cynicism, rewarding all-or-nothing attitudes and undermining faith in the current system’s ability to govern for everyone.
In October, we said competitive maps would benefit Wisconsin. They would create incentives for compromise and help elevate leaders who believe more in finding ways to work and live together than hoarding power. We still believe that’s true.
Settling on a new approach may not be easy, but it offers the hope of restoring the Legislature as a place where progress is made, rather than where ideas go to die. It’s time for Wisconsin’s political leaders to get serious about finding a better way to draw the state’s legislative maps.