EDITORIAL: Be independent. Break their power

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Pay attention to what they do, not what they say. Parties do not want free, fair elections.

SO HERE IT IS: A bill proposed in the Wisconsin Assembly to reform the legislative reapportionment process is just sitting there, for months now, with no prospect of serious consideration. Or, really, any consideration at all.

The chairman of the panel to which the measure is assigned — Lake Geneva Republican Tyler August of the Assembly Committee on Government Operations and State Licensing — says legislative redistricting reform will not even be granted a hearing.

Undoubtedly, that’s because August knows exactly where his party colleagues stand on the issue. The Republicans are in power. They intend to do everything they can to stay in power. Rigging legislative lines worked like a charm following the 2010 census. And it can work like a charm again after the 2020 census if they can hang on and resist change.

BEFORE DEMOCRATS go all righteous on the opposition, let it be stated that it wasn’t all that long ago both houses of the legislature were controlled by their party. Democrats had no interest in reform then, when it appeared political considerations could satisfy their lust for power.

Give Rep. Deb Kolste, D-Janesville, a nod for at least recognizing that bit of hypocrisy. Kolste is a co-sponsor of the bill aimed at changing Wisconsin’s redistricting process to mirror the one used in Iowa, which largely keeps politicians at arm’s length as a non-partisan entity draws the lines. Kolste acknowledges Democrats could have made fair changes but played the political game instead.

Truth is, both that acknowledgment from Kolste and the flat refusal from August to even allow discussion dramatically illustrate why change is so badly needed. When Democrats were in power the political class put their interests first. Now, with Republicans in power, the political class continues to pursue non-competitive partisan advantage. It is nothing short of a calculated — and bipartisan — assault on American democracy.

SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER? Judging from what August says — which echoes statements from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in an earlier interview with the Beloit Daily News — there is no hope whatsoever that Republicans will put their majority at risk by coming down on the side of fair elections through fair redistricting.

Then, should voters find a way to throw Republicans out and replace them with Democrats at the first opportunity? Dream on. Democrats demonstrated they wouldn’t reform the process either when they had the power to do so, and protest now only because it’s their ox being gored and they have no power to resist. Bet the farm on this: If Democrats suddenly gained control they would want to rig legislative districts in their favor, and advocacy of reform would just as suddenly shift to the Republican side.

Both parties have proven they cannot be trusted to do the right thing when power — and the spoils of power — is at stake.

THE PEOPLE’S STRATEGY — their only hope, really — must be to focus the attack on the political process, the political class and the desiccated partisan world they inhabit. Choosing sides and blindly sticking with that choice merely plays into the hands of the partisans, who prefer clearly identified base constituencies. Their worst nightmare is a large, engaged, well informed and committed segment of independents.

The outcome of elections can be decided by independents, if there are enough of them and they get off the couch to participate. That’s why politicians are not put off by extreme polarization, as has happened in Washington and now in Madison, with Wisconsin scoring in polls as the most polarized state in America. A polarized electorate is a predictable electorate, and the political class feels bound only to listen to its respective base. The more independent the electorate, the more politicians’ knees shake.

IT COMES DOWN to this: Government will be responsive to the people only if the people are first responsive to the government, by holding both sides accountable for actions (or inactions) that serve partisan interests rather than the public interest. Ideological differences are good and healthy, but only when the people are able to sort them out in the voting booth in fair elections free of partisan manipulation, resulting in clear direction for those chosen to represent them in office.

Legislative elections today are neither free nor fair, thanks to the political parties’ win-any-way-you-can mindset. The people can only force change by scaring the bejesus out of politicians by — wonder of wonders — exercising enough independence to become unpredictable.

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