By Senator Lena C. Taylor
The high stakes redistricting process is underway in Wisconsin. This literally has the potential to be a winner take all game, if not done fairly and correctly. The last few weeks have borne witness to how voters and voting districts can be decimated, even by well-intentioned people. This fact was never more poignant than when Wisconsin’s People’s Map Commission recently released three draft legislative maps. After nearly a year of work, the non-partisan group set off alarms in the Black community with maps that effectively reduced or eliminated Black legislative representation. Even in draft maps, that should have never happened.
Every 10 years, district boundaries (maps) are redrawn to ensure that each district has roughly the same number of people. Additionally, the districts are supposed to reflect and represent the people of respective states, municipalities and communities. The process is driven by information derived from the U.S. Census, which has a primary goal of gathering demographic, economic and geographic information. This data is then used for everything from determining equitable funding programs from Medicaid, highway planning and construction, education grants, Head Start and the National School Lunch program to forecasting economic needs of states. And yes, legislative and local representation district decisions are informed by the decennial census count.
As a result of the process, we are able to determine population changes. Some district gain residents, others lose people. These ebbs and flows should be reflected in the elected leadership of a district. Often, it is apparent that elected officials, who in many states control the redistricting process, draw district lines to aid their re-election or help their political party retain or gain power. Hence, there was a call for non-partisan commissions, at both the state and local levels, to create fair and balanced voting districts. Groups were clear that they did not want elected officials involved in the process. I don’t blame them. However, the resulting elimination or reduction of Black representation, in the People’s Maps Commission, shows why there is a place for elected officials to at least help inform the process.
Whether the state’s Peoples Map Commission, or the Independent Redistricting Committee (IRC) formed by Milwaukee County, redistricting groups need to be better informed about the nuance of districts, the federal requirements, and given comprehensive training to best fulfill their duties. Gerrymandered districts, those manipulated by unfairly drawing lines, hurt communities. I think it is equally important to note that well-intentioned, non-partisan groups, can do damage too. It is no longer good enough to say we want non-partisan and independent committees to draw fair maps. We must have comprehensively trained, non-partisan redistricting committees.
We need committees capable of understanding how other factors such as income, common interests, voting patterns and voter turnout can impact a district make-up. Race and population are not enough. This process is more than computer generated maps based on a set of criteria. It is also based on individuals knowing these districts. The idea that any commission could produce a redistricting map that wiped out black representation, in the state senate, is unconscionable. The fact that such a draft map was released to the community is irresponsible. The stakes are just too high.