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Gerrymandering Democracy: As Wisconsin Recall Elections Approach, GOP Creates New Senate Districts—and Confusion | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Gerrymandering Democracy: As Wisconsin Recall Elections Approach, GOP Creates New Senate Districts—and Confusion

Two centuries ago, when Massachusetts Governor Eldridge Gerry and his allies games the decennial work of drawing legislative districts to assure that members of his Democratic-Republican Party would win key elections to the state Senate, the Boston Gazette newspaper highlighted a district with lines so contorted that it stretched across the state in the shape of a salamander.

The paper’s editors referred to the political creature that had spawned by the governor’s political avarice as as a “gerrymander.”

And the rest was history.

To this day, warped and dysfunctional redistricting that is designed not to foster competition but to stymie it is referred to as “gerrymandering.”

The decennial process of drawing Congressional, legislative and local government boundaries is in full swing, and it is getting ugly out there. Both parties are drawing districts to their own advantage.

But nowhere have things spun further out of control than in Wisconsin, the state where since February Governor Scott Walker and his minions have dismissed the rule of law and run roughshod over the basic rights of state employees, local elected officials and the citizens Walker swore an oath to serve.

Now, Walker and his legislative lackeys—Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald and his brother, Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald—have with the current redistricting process put Eldridge Gerry’s machinations to shame.

The maps of legislative and Congressional districts that the Fitzgeralds produced last Friday—after squandering more than $300,000 in taxpayer funds on the hyper-partisan gambit—is such a mess that the term “gerrymandered” no longer seems sufficient.

Former Legislative Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Mark Pocan, D-Madison, coined the phrase “Fitzwalkerstan” to refer to Wisconsin in the lawless age of one-party governance defined by the Fitzgeralds and their gubernatorial puppeteer.

So perhaps we should refer to the Wisconsin as having been “Fitzwalkermandered.”

Whatever the word that is used, the term must describe what is arguably the most politicized redistricting map is the history not just of Wisconsin but the nation.

Consider the abuses that have characterized the “Fitzwalkermandering” process and the crude map it has spawned:

1.The Wisconsin legislature is, by law, barred from drawing legislative district lines until after local governments have drawn the lines for aldermanic and county board districts. There is a reason for this law. It is on the books to insure that legislative districts are respectful of local boundaries. That way, communities are not cut up for partisan purposes and citizens with shared history, shared needs and proximity to one another can be grouped in districts designed to assure that their interests are represented.

Walker and the Fitzgeralds disregarded the law—as they have so many others—and drew legislative district lines before many communities and counties across the state had completed their mapping processes. And they created such a warped map that those communities that have drawn new lines based on the 2010 Census may have to do so again.

And how do the Fitzgeralds propose to get around the law? Simple. As part of the consideration of the new maps, the legislative leaders are asking their colleagues to pass a new law that lifts the requirement that the legislature respect the need for local governments to go first.

2.Why the rush by the Fitzgeralds? They wanted to produce the map before the recall elections that threaten six Republican state senators who voted with Governor Walker to attack union rights, local democracy, schools and public services. (The recalls also target three Democratic senators who opposed the governor’s agenda.) Those elections, which will play out over the months of July and August, could cost Republicans control of the state Senate and the ability to game the redistricting process.

So the Fitzgeralds decided to rush the process for a purely political purpose rather than respect the will of the people.

3.But that’s not where the political gamesmanship stops. The Republicans drew maps that push three candidates who have chances of winning recall elections out of the districts that might elect them: state Representative Fred Clark, who is challenging state Senator Luther Olsen; former Brown County executive Nancy Nussbaum, who is challenging state Senator Rob Cowles; and state Senator Bob Wirch, who faces a recall challenge. All three candidates whose homes are drawn out of the districts in which they are running are Democrats.

The point of this unnecessary removal of Democrats from districts they could win is twofold: to create confusion with regard to the recalls and to force winners of the recalls to run in different districts in 2012.

To achieve their political ends, Walker and the Fitzgeralds cut up counties and communities in ways that they have never before been divided. They disregarded concerns about minority representation and the need to assure that the makeup of the legislature reflects the diversity of the state. And they set the stage for future elections in which few if any seats are competitive—and their political dominance over the next decade is protected not by the will of the people but by the lines on the map.

There is no question that the maps will be challenged in the courts. And it is hard to imagine how they could pass legal muster, as they disregard both the letter of the law and the intent when it comes to redistricting.

But for now at least, Wisconsin has been Fitzwalkermandered.

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