By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — If it seems that politics is trumping the public interest in the GOP’s push to make it harder to recall Republicans, well, that’s because it is, according to one political observer.
But look across Wisconsin's southern border and the story remains the same for Democratic lawmakers in Illinois, charged with setting up new political boundaries in that state.
What’s best for the public typically takes a backseat to partisan concerns in all matters related to redistricting, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in control, said Kent Redfield, interim director of the Institute for Legislative Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Lawmakers are responsible for redistricting — redrawing congressional and legislative district boundary lines — every 10 years to account for population shifts identified by the U.S. Census.
“Whatever party is in power is going to draw a map that is going to protect (that party’s) incumbents,” he said. “It’s going to get the most partisan advantage that they can get out of the map. It’s going to try to deal with minority voting rights to minimize the possibility that they get sued.
“They’re not particularly drawn from the citizens’ standpoint or the health of democracy standpoint,” he said.
Wisconsin Republicans drew new district boundaries in their favor this year, because they control the state Assembly, state Senate and governor’s office. As it stands, those new boundaries would be in effect for the November 2012 elections, but not before.
Last week, however, state Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, introduced a bill that would put the new boundaries into effect immediately.
That almost certainly would make it more difficult to recall GOP senators next year.
The Senate Transportation and Elections Committee, on which Lazich is chairwoman, scheduled a public hearing on the legislation Monday afternoon.
But state Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, announced earlier in the day that he would break with his party to vote against the bill.
That effectively kills the measure unless Schultz changes his mind or the GOP can convince a Democrat to side with the Republicans. With a 17-16 majority in the Senate, Republicans need the support of every one of their members to pass partisan legislation.
The GOP lost two of six elections during the summer's state Senate recalls, narrowing the Republican Senate majority to one vote, which gives moderate senators like Schultz more power.
Democrats are livid about Lazich’s proposal and a separate bill that would require recall petitions to be notarized.
In a statement titled “Republicans rigging the recall,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Mike Tate said Friday that Gov. "Scott Walker and his rubberstamps in the legislature are taking an ax to the foundations of Wisconsin’s democracy to try and protect their own jobs.”
Critics also accuse the GOP of rushing through the proposed changes.
Andrew Welhouse, spokesman for state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in an email that the bill is aimed at clarifying what he called “massive confusion and expense because of the Democrats’ never-ending election cycle.”
“Mary Lazich offered her idea for cleaning up that mess, and it will go through the process like any other idea,” Welhouse said.
Schultz said he thinks current law is clear.
"We voted for the (original redistricting) bill," Schultz told Wisconsin Reporter. "Gov. Walker signed the bill. I thought it was clear when it was written. I still think it's clear.
"I've learned after talking to thousands and thousands of people, quite literally, that if everybody is not completely happy, you're probably doing the right thing," he said. "And I just see no reason to change the rules."
If the criticism sounds familiar, it's akin to the complaints lodged by Illinois Republicans, where Democrats control the redistricting pen.
A recent order issued by U.S. District Judges Daniel Tinder, Robert Miller and Joan Lefkow in Chicago allows lawyers, representing a Republican-backed lawsuit trying to overturn the map, to find out the identities of experts and consultants that Illinois Democrats used to assist in drafting the state’s new congressional map, according to the Chicago Tribune.
But Illinois political observers assert the GOP faces long odds of overturning the map. In short, to the victor go the political spoils.
Still, in Wisconsin, if the legislative-boundaries bill should pass, it would raise serious legal questions, Redfield said.
“I can’t imagine that state or federal courts would uphold that,” he said of a bill Democrats have described as unprecedented.
“You essentially are disenfranchising voters,” he said, because some voters who were eligible to vote for a senator wouldn’t be able to vote in that senator’s recall election. “You’re swapping voters."
The GOP is facing legal challenges to its redistricting map. Last week, a three-judge panel from the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Wisconsin in Milwaukee refused to throw out a lawsuit challenging the legality of the map. The panel noting a 1983 federal decision said 300,000 voters could be disenfranchised by the changes, or at least their status is in question.
The case was filed by a group of Wisconsin residents against the Government Accountability Board.