Wouldn’t it be great if life were a lot more like golf? We’d all benefit from the thrill of competition, we’d learn good sportsmanship, and we’d all get to enjoy the great outdoors on a daily basis. (In my case, I get to enjoy nature more than most, as I’m usually hitting out of a bird’s nest.) And best yet, if you’re a terrible golfer, you get a “handicap,” which levels the playing field by letting you shave strokes off your final score.
(Perhaps most importantly, any situation where it’s acceptable to wear plaid pants in public is okay in my book.)
The whole concept of making things fair by allowing for a handicap would be welcome in real life. All your friends would be uglier than you, so you’d look better by comparison. People would only be allowed to talk about books you have read, so you could dazzle them with your insight. You could walk right into your new job, declare yourself a substandard worker, and thus be allowed to do half the work of your colleagues. (One of the ironclad rules of the workplace – never do anything well the first time, because if you do, you’ll get stuck doing it forever.)
Apparently, Democrats in the Wisconsin State Legislature feel the same way about “leveling” the playing field in elections. Or at least they pretend to – in actuality, their plan for “fairness” in legislative redistricting is a naked attempt to provide themselves with a redistricting handicap, which would guarantee Democrat majorities for the foreseeable future.
The whole idea of fairness in redistricting and creating competitive districts has become a hot topic among “good government” groups, who are displeased with the idea of allowing legislators to set the boundaries of their own districts. Groups like the League of Women Voters and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign have lobbied for legislation to set up an independent panel to set legislative districts. In 2006, the League of Women Voters issued a survey for candidates that asked this question:
4. YES OR NO: Do you support and would you vote for legislative measures making electoral competitiveness a legal or constitutional standard that must be applied by the Legislature and the courts in establishing state legislative and congressional district boundaries?
Clearly, they are dissatisfied with the current makeup of the State Legislature and think there’s a better way to draw legislative districts. They think that the districts are rigged by the incumbent lawmakers that redraw them every decade. They think that somehow, the state Constitution should be rewritten to make “electoral competitiveness” the standard when drawing new districts.
In the 2007 session, they got their wish – Democratic Representatives Fred Kessler of Milwaukee and Spencer Black of Madison introduced a constitutional amendment (AJR 63) that sets up an independent board to write new districts and creates a standard of “fairness” that most districts will have to reflect.
So making all the districts in the state competitive sounds like a good idea, right? Then, more races will be contested, and democracy will flourish, correct? There’s only one problem with this theory: The Voting Rights Act.
In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote for all citizens. The Act was a response to Southern separatists, who responded to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by making it more difficult for blacks to vote.
For the past 40 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has continued to mold the meaning of the Civil Rights Act. One of the problems encountered by the courts has been that of “vote dilution,” used by segregationists to lessen the influence of black voters. These segregationist lawmakers would gerrymander districts to make sure only a sliver of black voters were present in each district, which guaranteed no minorities could be elected to office, and would “dilute” the efficacy of minority votes.
To address this nefarious tactic, the courts have ruled that wherever possible, minority representation must be present. The goal in redistricting has to be keeping minority voters together as a community. To that end, where there are majority-minority populations, there must be an opportunity to elect a minority to office. Of course, minorities, especially African-Americans, disproportionately vote for Democrats. Thus, in heavily black areas of Milwaukee, you find a lot of black Democrats that hold office. Here’s a map of downtown Milwaukee Assembly districts:
Of the inner city Milwaukee districts, look at the solid block that are represented by African Americans or other minorities: the 16th (Leon Young), 18th (Tamara Grigsby), 10th (Polly Williams), 17th (Barbara Toles), 8th (Pedro Colon), and 11th (Jason Fields). Additionally, these districts are represented by African-Americans Spencer Coggs and Lena Taylor in the State Senate. Of course, all of these minority representatives are Democrats, and represent heavily Democratic districts.
Now try to imagine drawing a map where each of these districts are “electorally competitive.” Think of how you could take these 90% Democratic districts and gerrymander them so they are each 50% Republican. You would essentially have about ten to fifteen districts made up primarily of the suburbs that pick off just a little sliver of inner city Milwaukee. The effect of this type of gerrymandering? Vote dilution.
Trying to make these districts “electorally competitive” would fracture the African-American community into little sections, where it would be increasingly more difficult to elect black representatives. I’m not willing to say that any of the current African-American representatives couldn’t be elected in majority white districts, but Wisconsin has yet to elect a minority in any district without a strong minority presence (Bob Turner from Racine, for instance). So the end result of the League of Women Voters’ plan to equalize districts would actually be to end minority representation in the state.
Not only would this be unlawful (as determined by the courts) it wouldn’t pass the test of public decency. Of course, what the League really wants to do is make heavily Republican districts more competitive. But in order to do that, you have to move the Republicans somewhere, and they would have to go into districts that cause problems with equal rights case law. Since Republicans continue to win seats in both state houses, they figure something must be wrong with the process of drawing districts – it’s obviously rigged.
Enter the Kessler/Black constitutional amendment, which makes an exception for majority-minority districts. The bill says:
[Article IV] Section 3 (2) Within 120 days after receipt of the final census report of the population count by census block, the legislative technology services bureau shall submit to the state redistricting board 3 apportionment proposals providing for competitive elections, all meeting the following criteria:
(b) African−Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and members of any other demographic group protected by the laws of the United States shall be the voting age majority in the number of assembly and senate districts in proportion to the percentage of the population in counties or groups of counties having a sufficient geographic concentration of their members.
Translation: All districts have to be competitive, except for the ones that are majority-minority, which (rightfully) can’t be touched. If you consider the six Assembly districts currently represented by minorities, then add in a couple more that could very easily be represented by minorities, you’re essentially giving Assembly Democrats an eight-seat handicap going into every election. (Kessler’s district probably should have a minority representative, but he was helped by his guest spot on rapper Jay-Z’s last album.) The bill does nothing but rig elections to favor Democrats, pure and simple.
This is just another example of interest groups either not thinking through the implications of their policy positions, or making a blatant power grab, engineered by the state constitution. Who ever thought the League of Women Voters would advocate undermining the Voting Rights Act? Someone call Tiger Woods.
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