Few legislative causes have drawn as much interest and as little momentum as redistricting, the drawing of new voter boundaries after each 10-year census.
The Republicans who control the state Legislature have rebuffed pressure to hold hearings on Assembly Bill 185 and Senate Bill 163, both of which would shift responsibility for redistricting from politicians to the Legislative Reference Bureau, a nonpartisan state service agency.
So two of the bill’s main backers, Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, and Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, held a “public meeting” Feb. 10 in a packed room at the state Capitol.
Among those appearing, via Skype, was Ed Cook, legal counsel for Iowa’s Legislative Service Agency, which has run nonpartisan redistricting in that state since 1981. He said the process “has really stood the test of time.”
Districts are redrawn using objective criteria, subject to legislative approval.
“We do not look at any political information,” Cook said, such as where lawmakers happen to live or which party a district’s voters tend to support.
The cost, Cook said, is “not significant.” No approved map has been challenged in court. Some districts still lean Republican or Democratic but, Cook said, “redistricting doesn’t get in the way of a trend in an election.”
In other words, the fortunes of Iowa’s political parties hinge on how much support they receive at the polls, not how cleverly they carve out districts to their advantage.
In contrast, according to University of Wisconsin political science professor Ken Mayer, Wisconsin’s process “is divisive, polarizing, expensive, litigious, and undermines basic notions of representation.”
The last redistricting, after the 2010 census, cost taxpayers more than $2 million and, as usual, was challenged in court. Mayer said the maps were “carefully drawn to maximize the partisan advantage for the Republican Party,” adding that Democrats “would have done the same thing” had they been in charge.
In the 2012 election, Republicans increased their control of the state Legislature despite getting substantially fewer total votes than Democrats. That was done, Mayer said, by packing Democrats into safe districts while creating a slight edge for Republicans in many more.
The result, Schultz said, breeds public anger and mistrust.
“They know that the system isn’t fair,” he said.
Hypothetical nonpartisan maps produced by the Legislative Reference Bureau at Cullen’s request show how different things could be. The redrawn districts are much cleaner and more competitive.
Had those maps been in place in 2012, Cullen’s analysis found, 28 Assembly and five Senate races would have been decided by a 6-point margin or less. In the actual election, only 11 Assembly races and one Senate race were that close.
Overall, the new maps would have favored legislative Democrats in 2012, consistent with their vote totals. But in 2010, a banner year for Republicans, the GOP still would have come out on top.
The antipathy of state Republicans to altering a system that has worked to their benefit is undiminished. Aside from Schultz, no GOP lawmaker supports a resolution calling for an advisory referendum on nonpartisan redistricting.
Chad Weininger, R-Green Bay, one of the committee leaders blocking a hearing on AB 185, has denounced it as a “gimmick” because the Legislature would not have to follow the method.
Mayer conceded the point, but only in the sense that lawmakers can pass new laws. By that standard, he said, “virtually everything the Legislature does is a gimmick.”
At the hearing, Schultz, who is not seeking reelection, said every candidate for state office should be asked about redistricting. Cullen, who is also stepping down, said it is a topic on which the public, not politicians, should take the lead.
“This is going to be a bottom-up solution,” he said at the hearing. “It will not come out of this building. It will come from all of you.”