Nonpartisan Redistricting: A Bright Spot in a Dark Moment

October 3, 2017

 Wisconsin is making national news this week for having some of the worst electoral maps in the nation.  Wisconsin’s legislative districts, created by the majority party in the legislature in 2011, were found by Federal courts in November 2016 and again in January of 2017 to be “an unconstitutional political gerrymander” that unfairly dilutes the votes of over half of the state’s citizens, in violation of both the First Amendment and the 14thth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. 


This is a dark moment for Wisconsin democracy.


But as anyone who has contemplated the heavens on a clear autumn night knows, the deeper the darkness, the more brilliant the points of light that pierce it.  On Tues., Oct. 3, plaintiffs in the case Gill v. Whitford will be at the United States Supreme Court shining a light on what the foundation of a fair democracy should be – nonpartisan electoral maps that keep communities together rather than divide them.  The plaintiffs in the case are average Wisconsin citizens who believe deeply in democracy and believe that the right to vote is a right worth fighting for.


At the 86th annual Wisconsin Farmers Union State Convention this past January, members of the family farm organization named Nonpartisan Redistricting as a Special Order of Business for 2017, voicing support for the creation of a nonpartisan entity to perform all future redistricting for city, county, state and federal offices in the state of Wisconsin.


The need for a costly Supreme Court legal battle could have been avoided, if leaders in the legislature had simply fixed the maps after Federal courts ruled them unconstitutional.  Instead, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to defend the indefensible – politically-motivated, gerrymandered districts that divide communities, polarize our politics, and protect incumbents from legitimate electoral challenges. 


Against that dark backdrop, like stars spreading across the night sky, 24 county boards from one end of Wisconsin to the other have passed resolutions this year in support of nonpartisan redistricting.  The resolutions came from counties all across the political spectrum.  Likewise there is bipartisan support for Senate Bill 13 and its companion, Assembly Bill 44, which would create a nonpartisan process for redrawing Wisconsin’s legislative districts. It seems that basic democratic principles like fair elections have the potential to unite us across party lines. 


So how do we draw better district maps?  Luckily other states have created the laws, and the computer software, to draw legislative districts based on nonpartisan factors such as population, county and town borders, and contiguity of land area.  In addition to creating better outcomes for democracy, such a system is also inexpensive to administer:  taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill for a multi-million dollar redistricting legal battle every 10 years.  That sure sounds like a bright idea to me.  


Kara O’Connor lives in Madison and is Government Relations Director for Wisconsin Farmers Union, a member-driven organization committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities, and all people through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors, and civic engagement. Learn more at

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