Redistricting and the Impact on Democracy: Politicians Choosing Voters

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State Representative Francesca Hong

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Dr. Ruben Anthony Jr., CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison

By Jonathan Gramling

On some levels, the pillars of democracy have been eroding over time as political power becomes more concentrated and the enhanced ability of unlimited amounts of money given by anonymous people to influence the very political environment and to elect public officials.

As of October 6, out of 50 states, Republicans have complete control of the state government — holding the governorship and having majorities in both houses of the legislature — and Democrats control 15. And with complete control of state government, either party can have a big impact on the political environment and how elections are run and who represents whom.

One big push in recent years has been to restrict the ability to

vote through voter ID, absentee ballot and mail-in voting and other measures. There has been a big push nationally to further restrict voting and the same holds true in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is one of only 13 states that has a divided government.

“The governor promptly vetoed the bills that would have restricted voting,” said State Rep. Francesca Hong. “The governor has assured us that any legislation that aims to suppress the vote of Wisconsinites, he will promptly veto them. The Republicans don’t have the votes to overturn the vetoes. The Republicans currently have a 63-36 majority and so we have three votes that allow us to maintain and save the veto.”

Another area that brings fierce political debate is redistricting. Every 10 years, the U.S. Government conducts the census. And one of the results of the census is redistricting in order to preserve the concept of “one person, one vote.” But with political power comes the ability to draw those district lines to favor the political party in power, preserving their hegemony in state government.

“I would describe Wisconsin as the poster child for gerrymandering,” said Dr. Ruben Anthony, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison about the term used to skew redistricting to favor a particular political party. “With redistricting, the ruling party in the state government houses get to decide how the state will be rearranged in terms of the voting districts. States like Wisconsin end up with a gerrymandered districts where you have legislators who are picking their people as opposed to people picking the legislators that they want. Again, when you have a higher voting block of Democrats and you still have Republicans winning both houses, you really have to look at it. Gerrymandering is not a Democrat or Republican issue. It is more of an issue about democracy and whether a vote for Democrats and Republicans, will we continue to be a state and country where we are representative of what the people want.”

Anthony reflects the growing concern that gerrymandering and voting restrictions are being used to silence the will of the majority of people in a state or the country, thereby allowing a minority to retain political power.

“In states like Wisconsin, we’re almost headed to a situation like South Africa where you have apartheid,” Anthony said. “Many folks are really afraid about where we are headed given the fact that the 2020 Census has come out and it shows that our demographics are shifting towards minorities are growing. African Americans are holding. Over the next 10 years or so, you might be shifting the majority populations in major urban places throughout the country. I think there is a lot of fear about what is going to happen. And what we saw on January 6th is an example of the panic that our ruling parties, our majority parties are fearing that folks are becoming irrational and they don’t care if you see all of that. We know that they are doing it for this reason. And I guess they all think it’s a cost of turning over the country to a multicultural democracy. It’s a direction they don’t want to go in. There are some in this country and this state who will see our country destroyed before they give it to a multicultural democracy.”

Like all other states, the redistricting process is going on right now in Wisconsin.

“The People’s Maps Commission is appointed by the governor,” Hong said. “Although they are appointed by the governor, this is a non-partisan commission made up of Republicans and Democrats and data analysts. And they released their maps yesterday. But the commission was appointed by the governor and now there is going to be time for the next two months, I believe, where Wisconsinites will be able to give their input on those maps that are drawn. Soon the legislature will present their own maps in the coming months as well. We currently have an online form to submit opinions as well. We will likely vote on the maps at the end of October. That’s according to the chairman of the commission.”

But while the commission may have been non-partisan, the legislature is not and so political considerations will come into play.

“They released sets of maps yesterday that our full legislature will take into consideration,” said Hong, a Democrat. “But we both know that is probably not going to happen. Right now, the maps are severely gerrymandered to give the Republicans an advantage and they rigged the system. And so they will do everything in their power through litigation and efforts through the legislature. But fortunately, we do have the governor’s veto to ensure that the legislature doesn’t present severely gerrymandered maps to give them more than an advantage and continue to allow them to cheat.”

And so with the stalemate in state government, the redrawing of the district maps will fall to the courts, either the circuit court or Supreme Court levels. It could even fall in the lap of a federal judge.

“The maps have to be drawn by April,” Hong said. “But we are unsure of the likelihood of that happening. Basically what is going to happen is that there are immense uncertainties right now. And then we’ll have a lot of information based on the judges’ decision coming to us in late April. Specific dates are not solid. We can give these deadlines to the judges and the courts, but whether or not it will actually happen no one knows because there is so much litigation. There are a couple of cases at the federal level as well as the state level that have been brought up by Democratic firms and Republican lawyers. Wisconsinites want secure and fair elections. And a big part of that is ensuring that we have fair maps. It’s what a majority of the state wants. And so Democrats and Republicans alike really should be fighting for this. Democracy depends on it.”

Democratic participation isn’t limited to voting. Now is the time to act through proactive advocacy to ensure that voters are choosing politicians and not the other way around. Wisconsin deserves fair maps to practically preserve the “one person, one vote” concept embedded in the U.S. Constitution.