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La Crosse County voters could see a redistricting-related referendum on the April 2 ballot.

Members of the La Crosse County Board’s Executive Committee voted unanimously Wednesday morning in favor of a resolution that would put an advisory redistricting referendum in front of the voters this spring.

In December, the Vernon County Board also approved putting a similar redistricting referendum on the ballot for April. La Crosse County’s proposed referendum will have wording very similar to Vernon County’s.

The referendum is being requested by the county’s chapter of the League of Women Voters, and three members of that group’s board of directors offered comments to the committee Wednesday morning to make the case for the referendum, but in a way the LWV members were “preaching to the choir.”

In August 2017, the county board approved a resolution opposing the partisan redrawing of political district boundaries, commonly known as gerrymandering, and calling for “the creation of a nonpartisan procedure for the preparation of legislative and congressional redistricting plans.”

More than 40 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have approved resolutions opposing partisan gerrymandering.

The aim of the proposed referendum is to gauge support among La Crosse County voters for creating a method of redistricting that takes politics out of the equation. The referendum asks for a yes or no answer to this question: “Should the Wisconsin Legislature create a nonpartisan procedure for the preparation of legislative and congressional district plans and maps?”

Wisconsin, like the vast majority of states, leaves the redrawing of congressional and legislative boundaries up to the state Legislature. This is done every 10 years, after the results of the U.S. Census come in.

When Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature did the redistricting in 2011, according to a lawsuit ruling by a panel of three federal judges in November 2016, the resulting plan was an instance of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering, an attempt by the GOP to create districts in which Republican candidates would have strong advantages.

The federal panel’s ruling was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which didn’t rule on the merits of the case but sent the legal challenge back to the lower court to give the plaintiffs a chance to prove they had standing to bring suit — basically, showing that they were harmed by the gerrymandering.

Nora Garland

Garland

The local LWV representatives told executive committee members Wednesday morning that there is a high price to pay for partisan gerrymandering. For one thing, said Nora Garland, there’s a financial cost: The state has spent $3.5 million defending the 2011 redistricting plan, she said, and the case hasn’t been resolved yet, with a trial tentatively set for April.

Garland also said the gerrymandering has resulted in the election of more legislators with more extreme views.

Perhaps the greatest cost, from the LWV’s perspective, is gerrymandering discourages participation in elections, both by voters and candidates.

“The problems inherent in the redistricting process as it is carried out now — in secrecy, with restricted debate and in disregard for what the public wants — is causing many of us to believe that our votes don’t count,” said LWV board member Pam Knudtson. “When people see that the system is rigged in this way, they often decide it’s not worth their time and effort to participate and to vote. We believe this is a great threat to democracy.”

Strong majorities of voters in other counties apparently agree that a new nonpartisan redistrict process is necessary. At least six counties so far have had redistricting referendums so far — four of them in last November’s general election — and “yes” voters have prevailed by wide margins.

Dane County’s 2014 referendum passed with 82 percent voting “yes,” while last year’s referendum votes too place in Eau Claire (74 percent “yes”), Sauk (72 percent), Outagamie (72 percent), Winnebago (69 percent) and Lincoln (65 percent) counties.

Ellen Frantz

Frantz

“That’s a significant message and we want to continue giving that message to our Legislature, that we don’t want to continue to accept where we are,” said LWV board member Ellen Frantz.

The League of Women Voters and possibly other members of the Fair Maps coalition will take on the responsibility of voter education, so the county wouldn’t be on the hook for the cost of an educational campaign.

The deadline for getting a referendum for the spring ballot filed with the county clerk is Jan. 22. The full La Crosse County Board is expected to vote on the referendum resolution at its monthly meeting on Jan. 17.

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Entertainment and county government reporter

Randy Erickson covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

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