In 2011, Dale Schultz was a Republican state senator from Richland Center and he voted for a plan created by Republicans to draw new boundaries for legislative districts in Wisconsin that helped the party grow and solidify its control of the legislature.
It’s a long-standing practice in politics. In different times and places, both Democrats and Republicans have tailored district lines to favor their party. It’s called gerrymandering.
Schultz, who left the legislature in 2015, and a former state Senate colleague, Democrat Tim Cullen, who also left office in 2015, have come to call it an abuse of power.
The two have travelled the state in recent years, promoting good government measures, less partisan approaches to legislative decisions, and opposition to gerrymandering.
In a virtual “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program, posted on the Marquette Law School web site on Oct. 13, they described their battle against gerrymandering, which is the hottest issue now because work on drawing new boundaries for districts will be done in 2021, following completion of the 2020 census.
“What Tim and I are trying to do is rekindle that spirit of what is good government in Wisconsin. For many, many years we were considered one of the cleanest states in the nation. I’m not sure we can say that anymore,” Schultz told Gousha, Marquette Law School’s Distinguished Fellow in Law and Public Policy.
After voting for that re-districting 2011 plan, Schultz had what he called “an epiphany” when he saw the results. Republicans ended up with majorities that were disproportionate to the percent of Wisconsinites who were voting Republican and few elections were competitive. “I realized we had invented a process that was thwarting the will of voters,” Schultz said.
Cullen said that in 1981, 1991, and 2001, years when re-districting occurred, power in state government was divided between Republicans and Democrats and there no agreement on re-districting plans. So federal judges drew the maps. “Everybody was pretty happy,” Cullen said, “The federal judges, they didn’t have a partisan agenda. . . . It got tossed in their lap and they did it.”
Cullen and Schultz would like to see something similar happen in 2021. In one scenario Cullen envisioned, legislative Republicans pass a plan, Democratic Governor Tony Evers vetoes it, and the issue returns to federal court. Cullen and Schultz would prefer for a non-partisan official or group, perhaps one of the legislative service organizations, to draw up a map that ignores partisan considerations.
Schultz said Iowa has used a non-partisan plan for redistricting in recent decades with acceptance and support from both parties. It doesn’t allow partisan voting patterns or even the home addresses of incumbent legislators to be factors in drawing lines. Both are frequently used in gerrymandered plans.
Cullen told Gousha that he was opposed to creating a plan that would intentionally make more legislative races competitive by including both Democratic and Republicans areas within districts. Maps should drawn simply based on what makes sense geographically to group the same number of voters in each district, he said. Cullen suggested that with a nonpartisan map, about a third of districts would be oriented toward one party, a third to the other party, and a third would be competitive.
Schultz and Cullen have been supporting the work of a citizen task force created by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, that is aiming to create a nonpartisan map. While the map will have no formal standing, those involved in the effort hope it will create momentum for less partisan boundaries.
The two former legislators say they are convinced there is growing support for ending gerrymandering. Cullen said, “The people are completely behind change, but the very people who have to make the change– the legislature — enjoy the gerrymander they have right now.”
And if Cullen and Schultz don’t succeed in stopping gerrymandering in 2021? They said they will keep fighting. After all, the next census is only a decade away.
To view the 45-minute “On the Issues” program, click here.