Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lessons in cartography

By Bill Kraus

I am now, finally, in possession of the maps of the legislative districts that the new law created and that Wisconsin will adhere to for the next 10 years. I think.

Everyone knows by now that the tradeoff of counties in the north and west has presumably made the 3rd congressional district safe for Ron Kind and any Democrat who runs there forevermore and the 7th congressional district safe for Sean Duffy and any Republican ditto.

My own view is these carefully sculpted results are not as permanent as the sculptors imagine. These districts have a long history of choosing people they like without regard to political labels. I attribute this to their Progressive Party roots, probably unjustifiably.

But if the intended results are achieved, this rearrangement means that there are no competitive congressional districts, none, in Wisconsin. If the voters dislike an incumbent, they will have to dislodge him or her in a primary election. The general elections are wired.

The state legislative maps are pretty incumbent-friendly too, but not to this extent.

The Assembly comes closest. If this redistricting holds up through the several court challenges it faces, only 10 of the 99 Assembly seats will be truly competitive. Ten of the 33 state Senate seats were competitive before this redistricting. There are now 11 that are.

It is hard to explain how the artful cartographers who succeeded in making the Assembly unassailably Republican for the next 10 years failed to do the same for the Senate. Maybe they know something I don’t. Always a possibility.

Fifty Assembly representatives will come from districts with a history of voting Republican by 20 points or more and another 10 will come from districts where Republicans were elected by margins of 10 to 20 points in 2010.

The best the Republican cartographers could do is make 12 state Senate seats safely theirs with another two in the 10-20 point margin category. The Democrats get seven safe seats and one more in the 10-20 point margin category.

Fully one-third of the state Senate races can be expected to be truly competitive. Only 14 Assembly districts have that expectation: 14 percent.

Unless the mapmakers have made egregious errors in not conforming to the relatively equal population and community of interest criteria, the courts, who have no serious interest in going into the mapmaking business themselves, are not likely to overturn the maps as drawn.

There is no way to predict what the redistricting would have produced if put in the hands of a disinterested group of cartographers who had no interest in or reason to achieve predetermined partisan goals.

We know that getting competitive elections everywhere or even in most places is geographically and ideologically impossible. Taking partisan criteria out of the mix isn’t going to turn the Fox River Valley blue or Milwaukee and Madison red.

But a state with no congressional districts worth contesting or with a locked-in majority for one party or the other in the state Assembly seems to me to be showing the worst side of partisanized redistricting. The congressional districts are safe for the incumbents due to mutual backscratching. The 1st and 2nd district were the beneficiaries in 2001. The 3rd and 7th in 2011.

The Assembly results cannot have been unanticipated. Eureka! Look what happened! Not likely.

A bill to de-partisanize the next redistricting in 2021 by taking the mapmaking out of the hands of the Legislature is being drafted.

Many voters are perfectly content with their representatives and don’t want them to be challenged. They should not overlook the prospect of a wild swing in the other direction in 2021. By keeping the redistricting in the hands of the Legislature, this result is entirely possible.

Rather than rolling the dice yet again it may be time to take the foxes out of the henhouse as many states have done and many more are thinking of doing.

Follow Bill Kraus on:
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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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