BELOIT - Former Wisconsin State Sen. Tim Cullen calls gerrymandering - the drawing of legislative district lines to lock in partisan advantage - "an abuse of power" and says no political party can be trusted to do the job fairly.
By example, he said Wisconsin Democrats controlled both the governorship and legislature in 2009-2010 and could have reformed the process but declined, believing they would still be in power after the 2010 elections. Instead, Republicans swept into power and drew lines to benefit their party.
"There's no holiness in either party," Cullen said.
The Janesville Democrat who served twice in the Wisconsin Senate spoke to members of the Beloit Rotary Club Tuesday, arguing in favor of changing the way Wisconsin draws legislative districts in order to prevent Democrats or Republicans from rigging elections. Cullen favors a system similar to one used in Iowa since 1980, which assigns the task of drawing legislative maps to a nonpartisan entity. The body is prohibited from taking political data into account, including the personal residence of the incumbent legislator. When the maps are done Iowa legislators then can vote them up or down, but not make changes. If there's a deadlock the job is finished by courts, though there have been no such problems since the system was enacted.
"Gerrymandering," Cullen said, "the act of doing it, is not a partisan activity by any particular party. You can only do it when you hold the governor, the Assembly and the Senate."
In states where Democrats control all the levers of government, he said, they gerrymander districts to serve their partisan interests. Where Republicans control all, as in Wisconsin after the 2010 election, they draw maps to preserve their majority for 10 years until the next reapportionment is considered.
The 2010 gerrymander in Wisconsin was something unseen in modern times, he said, though the gerrymandering practice itself dates back to 1820 when the first instance was recorded in Massachusetts. From 1910 to 1960, Cullen said, Wisconsin used the same maps. Then in 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000 there was divided government in the state making a gerrymander impossible.
"In 2010 there was no history of it," he said.
Cullen also argued times are different today because of the capabilities of technology, allowing map-drawers to be much more specific in identifying voters' preferences and casting districts based on the results.
"Technical analytics informs political parties about who you are to build a composite that probably tells them how you're going to vote before you know how you're going to vote," he said, creating election outcomes that are known before any votes are cast.
Cullen said the only real contests come in primaries, forcing candidates to hew closer to the more extreme fringes of their parties.
"Being a moderate or a compromiser will get you primaried," he said.
While state legislative district maps have been drawn to seize and hold power, Cullen said congressional district maps are intended to protect the seats of incumbents.There are no competitive congressional seats left in Wisconsin, he said, with the closest race in 2016 decided by a 60-40 factor. The Beloit area is a classic example. After the 2000 census district lines were redrawn to make Republican Paul Ryan's seat more Republican by removing Beloit, while then-Rep. Tammy Baldwin's district became more Democrat by adding Beloit.
With the retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate swing vote, and his likely replacement by Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative, Cullen said he's doubtful another court case challenging partisan gerrymandering will reach justices until after the 2020 census and reapportionment.
But he argues there's a chance Wisconsin could enact its own reform, if divided government returns after the 2018 election and before the 2020 census.
Cullen, co-chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin, also pledged to bring the concept of direct legislation by the people - through the initiative and referendum process - before the good-government agency board of directors. Direct legislation would allow the people to petition for a binding referendum to be placed on the ballot, thus bypassing partisan gridlock to enact changes over the heads of politicians.