When does partisanship cross the line?

by Cathleen Draper
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism launches a new series this week Undemocratic: Secrecy and Power vs. The People.” The following stories are the first installments in the series, which examines the state of Wisconsin’s democracy in an era of gerrymandering, secret campaign money, restrictive voting laws and legislative maneuvers that weaken the power of regular citizens to influence government. More stories will be published in upcoming months.

Prior to 2011, Milwaukeearea residents Marla Stephens and Kris Lennon felt that their votes counted.

Now, however, they say the impact of their votes is diminished due to Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting — which is under challenge in a U.S. Supreme Court case.

A ruling could come any day, and the outcome, experts say, could profoundly affect the nation’s elections and democracy for decades.

Because of where the lines were drawn in redistricting, Stephens, a Democrat, now votes in a heavily Republican district, where her party has little chance of winning. And Lennon, an independent, now votes in a district that is so packed with Democrats that the winning party is virtually guaranteed even before the first ballot is cast.

Plaintiffs allege the 2011 redistricting, which followed a Republican sweep of the state Legislature and governor’s office in 2010, is an unconstitutional attack on the voting rights of Democrats in Wisconsin.

They argue it violates the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and association and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause “because it treats voters unequally, diluting their voting power based on their political beliefs.”

The 2010 sweep was part of a national Republican strategy known as REDMAP, the Redistricting Majority Project, which helped Republicans gain 675 legislative seats across the United States.

Dale Schultz, who served as a Republican state senator during Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting, recalled that the map makers worked in a locked room where only Republican leaders were allowed in.

The maps passed on a party line vote. Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed the new legislative districts into law, less than a month after the bill’s introduction, on Aug. 9, 2011.

The redrawn lines have been the subject of court challenges ever since.

Schultz regrets his vote for the maps. He knew his party could gain power by controlling the redrawing of electoral districts. But the impact of that effort in 2012 “shocked” him, Schultz said, as Democrats cast more ballots but Republicans enjoyed a “wave” election, taking 60 of 99 seats in the Assembly.

“And I just said, ‘That’s not right. There’s something wrong here,’ ” Schultz recalled.

Schultz and former Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen are now the co-chairmen of the Fair Elections Project Wisconsin campaign, which is dedicated to helping end gridlock by stopping partisan gerrymandering.

The nation’s highest court will decide a lawsuit challenging the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin’s ruling that the 2011 redistricting was “an aggressive partisan gerrymander” in which the “defendants intended and accomplished an entrenchment of the Republican Party.”

The decision marked the first time a federal district court ruled a state legislative redistricting plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

No matter which way the U.S. Supreme Court decides, change could be coming to Wisconsin’s partisan system for redrawing electoral districts.

Thus far, 39 of 72 Wisconsin counties have passed resolutions in support of a nonpartisan redistricting process at the urging of groups including the Fair Elections Project, a bipartisan group that supports litigation, legislation and public advocacy to stop partisan gerrymandering; and the Citizen Action Organizing Cooperative, a group associated with Citizen Action of Wisconsin in which members pay an organizer to work on changing the state’s redistricting process.

“Having the ability, the freedom, to elect your representatives in a fair contest shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” said Andrea Kaminski, former executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

“It’s a fundamental citizen right. Yet, Wisconsin’s system for drawing voter districts has been used, abused and distorted by partisan politicians seeking to preserve their own interests instead of ours.”

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