The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week in a closely watched case testing Arizona’s nonpartisan redistricting commission. At issue here is how far the people may go to prevent partisans from carving up their states to maximum advantage. We hope the court recognizes the right of the people to adopt smarter, less partisan means to redraw district boundaries every 10 years. More than a dozen states now use independent commissions to draw congressional district lines — and all of them are at risk in this case. Wisconsin still relies on legislators to do the job, though it has flirted with a different model that stands a better chance of withstanding constitutional scrutiny. Senate Bill 58, which was introduced last Friday, would adopt a model pioneered by Iowa. The bill would take the task of redrawing political maps away from the partisans in the Legislature and give the job to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau. But unlike the independent commission model, legislative approval would be required. We urge legislators to get behind this idea. The 2011 redistricting process, which was run by Republicans, cost Wisconsin taxpayers more than $2 million and left voters with no competitive House districts and very few in either the state Assembly or state Senate.
In Arizona, voters approved a ballot measure in 2000 to amend the state constitution and give most redistricting duties to an independent commission made up of two Republicans, two Democrats and an independent chairman. The state is made up of 35% registered Republicans, 35% independents and 30% Democrats. The congressional map the commission came up with had four safe seats for Republicans, two for Democrats and three that were competitive.
That wasn’t good enough for Republicans, who first tried to boot out the commission chair and then launched the court case that now has reached the Supreme Court.
Republicans in Wisconsin, likewise, killed reform efforts in the last session. But Democratic hands are hardly clean here or elsewhere. When Democrats held the advantage, they made no serious attempts to reform Wisconsin’s partisan system. And in Illinois, Democrats imposed on voters a highly partisan set of maps the last time around.