By Ruth Conniff on Jul 26, 2011
Senator Chris Larson of Milwaukee summed up the Republicans' rush to pass their redistricting maps in Wisconsin during a special session on Tuesday, July 19: "This is a straight-up power grab," he said.
"We've had ten days to look at something that is going to impact the next ten years," Larson added.
"This is the only day we're here, in special session, and the only reason is to lock in power."
The rush to redistrict, Larson and other Democrats charged, is all about this summer's recall elections against Republican state senators who have sidedwith Governor Scott Walker's divisive policies.
"The leadership has no confidence in the ability of those senators to hold their seats," Larson said. "So the last vote those senators will take today is a no-confidence vote in themselves."
Shortly afterwards, the redistricting law passed the senate on a straight party-line vote, creating serpentine new voting districts that will limit competitive elections, lock incumbents into safe seats, and, in a few cases, leave Democrats who are likely to take office in the fall living outside their own districts.t
The impact will be particularly powerful for Milwaukee, Latino and African-American voters are losing representation thanks to the new maps.
"You are not listening to the voice and will of the people of Wisconsin," Senator Lena Taylor of Milwaukee said. "I'll say it. I believe it is about race."
After reading provisions of the federal law aloud, Taylor declared the redistricting plan: "a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."
As Jessica VanEgeren reported in the Capital Times, the state's Latino community has jumped by more than 130,000 people since the last census, yet the new maps water down Latinos' political voice.
In Milwaukee, minority districts will be broken up and added to largely white, outlying suburbs.
"I believe you have repressed and fractured the Latino community and minority communities," Taylor said. Then, addressing herself to Latino and African American voters she said, "I stand with you. . . . We will support each other."
Senator Kathleen Vinehout, a dairy farmer from Northwest Wisconsin, also criticized the new districts. "In my area and in Western Wisconsin we have a population that is very much proud of voting for the person, not the party," she said. "When I look at this map, what I find is the effect of the map is to dilute the influence that the people have and what it does is it strengthens the influence of the special interests."
Vinehout pointed to ten historically competitive districts, where Democrats and Republicans have vied for power each election, that will now be locked in for one political party.
"What I fear is the effect of all this is the exact opposite of what the people of Western Wisconsin want," she said. Namely: "a legislture that's more affected by special interests
Notably absent from the debate over redistricting were the people who drew the maps. State Republicans hired the law firm Michael Best and Freidrich, at taxpayer expense, to draw the new voting boundaries. In a private conference room at the firm's downtown offices, the lawyers there labored in secret for the last year to draw up the elaborately convoluted maps. Only in the last few weeks, as the results were rolled out for the hasty special session vote before the recalls, did the taxpayers get to see what they had paid for.
The Republicans' redistricting plan not only outsourced the whole process to a private law firm to draw the maps behind closed doors, they pulled funds from the Democrats to draw up their own, competing maps, and rejected the usual process of coming to an agreement between the two political parties.
Even more significantly, they ran roughshod over local municipalities right to draw their own districts, ignoring the plans and timetables local governments were already using to draw their own districts and adding a provision to the new law that allows the state to pre-empt local control of voting districts.
As Senator Chris Larson put it, "It's an attack on local control."
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "ALEC Exposed--How Corporations Are Taking Over Our Democracy."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter