PRESS EDITORIAL: Shocker: A move to let the voters have a say

Judging from the display of righteous umbrage that lit up in response to a proposal by eight county supervisors at last week’s meeting of the Ozaukee County Board, a late arriving observer might have thought a cabal of dissidents had just proposed a socialist takeover of county government or removal of the gilded eagle from the Courthouse steeple.

Undemocratic, possibly illegal, offensively partisan and polarizing, charged some of those affronted by the proposal.

What was the actual trigger for this outrage? It was an issue that has been addressed by more than two-thirds of Wisconsin’s county boards and approved by majorities of Wisconsin citizens in elections and opinion polls.

The issue was nonpartisan redistricting.

The group of eight submitted a resolution calling on the board to authorize a referendum asking voters whether the state should create a nonpartisan process for establishing legislative and congressional district boundaries.

The referendum would be advisory only, resulting in nothing more than an expression of voter opinion. Nonetheless, its mere mention was treated as a provocative intrusion into business as usual in the County Board chamber.

In other Wisconsin counties, fairness in drawing voting maps has been handled as a serious issue worthy of attention at the local level. Eight county boards have approved referendums with essentially the same language as that proposed in the Ozaukee resolution. When the referendums were held, voters in every case said yes to nonpartisan redistricting by large margins.

Those results were not surprising. Fairness is popular. A Marquette University poll found that 72% of Wisconsinites favor nonpartisan redistricting.

Fifty of Wisconsin’s 72 county boards have also passed resolutions urging the Legislature to adopt a nonpartisan system to replace the current redistricting procedure.  

Despite the record of other counties successfully holding redistricting referendums, critics of the idea here claimed the Ozaukee board doesn’t have the legal authority to do it. One of them, Supr. Marty Wolf of Cedarburg, also asserted that nonpartisan redistricting was wrong because “it actually removes the voice of the people from the process.”

Wolf had it backward. It’s the current redistricting process that silences the voice of the people. Members of the political party in power in the Legislature, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, have complete control of redistricting. The minority party and the citizens who voted for its candidates have nothing to say in the matter. Gerrymandering—creating districts with boundaries contorted to favor the party in power—is the inevitable result.

The form of nonpartisan redistricting most frequently cited as the remedy for gerrymandering is the system used in Iowa, in which civil servants draw maps that must follow statutory requirements to avoid political advantage and are subject to public hearings and legislative approval.

County Board Chairman Lee Schlenvogt told Ozaukee Press he opposed the referendum resolution because it would divide the board along partisan lines.

Schlenvogt’s wish to keep the county’s legislative body free of the bitter political divisions that so frequently taint the governing efforts of the Wisconsin Legislature and U.S. Congress is understandable, but that ship has already left the dock. That was evident in the board’s heated political stand-off over the referendum resolution.

Besides, rather than encouraging partisan warfare, passing the issue off to voters in a referendum would be a way for board members to keep their distance from what they view as a controversial issue while encouraging public participation in government. Can anything be more democratic than letting the voters speak?

That happens to have been the advice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Wisconsin’s most recent redistricting, widely considered one of the country’s worst examples of gerrymandering, got to the high court after a panel of federal judges declared it unconstitutional. Supreme Court justices declined to rule on the case on the grounds that it was a matter to be resolved by the state and not the federal government. They recommended that it be decided by voters.

Non-binding referendums cannot force nonpartisan redistricting, of course, but at least they are an indication of where voters stand on the issue. Bills to adopt nonpartisan redistricting principles have been introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature, but they will go nowhere because the Republican majority is not going to pass legislation that could make it difficult for members to keep their jobs. The same would be true of a Democratic majority.

It is obvious that any movement toward fair redistricting will have to start at the grass-roots level, which is precisely why those eight County Board members—Jennifer Rothstein, Alice Read, Janette Braverman, Justin Strom and David Hendricks, all of Mequon; Linda Krieg and Kathy Geracie of Cedarburg; and Rob Holyoke of Thiensville—are seeking a referendum in Ozaukee County.

Though it was clear that a majority opposed it, the resolution got a stay of execution when the board voted to put a final vote off until Jan. 15.

The delay was ostensibly intended to give the county corporation counsel time to review the referendum resolution. But optimistic believers in good government might hope that, with a month to consider it, opponents of the referendum will come to the conclusion that giving voters an opportunity to be heard on the fairness of the districts in which they vote is hardly a radical concept.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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