Fair elections: Wisconsin shows the way

Richard Schmidt Living and Learning
Posted 7/30/13

Can we make politics less political? Politics is the art of governing.

The word political refers to government, but it has acquired a negative secondary meaning because those who govern often do so in ways that smell like three-day-old fish. They …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Subscribe to continue reading. Already a subscriber? Sign in

Get the gift of local news. All subscriptions 50% off for a limited time!

You can cancel anytime.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Fair elections: Wisconsin shows the way


Can we make politics less political? Politics is the art of governing.

The word political refers to government, but it has acquired a negative secondary meaning because those who govern often do so in ways that smell like three-day-old fish. They appoint their relatives to the government payroll, take kickbacks from favored contractors, and manipulate elections so as to favor their friends.

Take the gerrymander, for example. I explained the gerrymander in last week’s column. The word was coined in 1812 and when Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts, oversaw the redrawing of district lines for the state senate with a view to protecting his party’s majority in that body. Districts were weirdly shaped. One of the contorted districts in Boston was said to resemble a salamander. Hence a new word: gerrymander.

Gerry’s effort succeeded. In the 1812 election, his party decisively lost the governorship and state House of Representatives, and a majority of voters voted for the other party’s state Senate nominee as well. But because of gerrymandering, Gerry’s party retained a comfortable majority in the Senate.

That kind of thing has become routine in most states. Most recently, the Republican-controlled Texas legislature approved new district lines to minimize the number of Democrats elected to that body and to the U.S. House of Representatives. Never mind that more Democrats than Republicans are registering as new voters in Texas these days (due largely to new Hispanic voters). Democrats did the same thing when they controlled the Texas legislature. The point of gerrymandering is to protect the positions of those currently in power.

Politicians tilt electoral results in other ways as well, and I cannot discuss them all here. But there is a way to assure reasonably fair elections. Only one state has moved decisively in this direction, however, undoubtedly because changes in election procedures must be approved by legislatures comprised of the very people who benefit from the way things are now.

But in 2008, in what one observer called “a moment of rare enlightenment,” the Wisconsin legislature created the Government Accountability Board (GAB). It is designed to be nonpartisan, or as nearly nonpartisan as possible. The Wisconsin GAB combines two older government bodies, the state ethics board and the elections board. And it has been given more authority to make policy than either of the boards it replaces.

Ten other states have bipartisan elections boards. That’s better than leaving elections to the oversight of state legislatures, but a bipartisan board usually consists of representatives of political parties, all of them loyal to their party first and the state second. The Wisconsin board is supposed to be above political loyalties.

That required a complex procedure for naming GAB members. A panel of state appeals court judges produces a list of nominees from which the governor makes appointments to the board. Nominees must be former judges who have served for six years or more. That is to say, they have been uninvolved in partisan politics for at least six years. The state senate must confirm the governor’s appointments. Members of the Wisconsin GAB also serve staggered terms, so there is a constant turnover. That’s about as close to nonpartisan as you can get.

This has already had an impact. The Wisconsin GAB ruled that voters could identify themselves at the polls by producing a copy of their utility bill and that this could be done electronically, by showing the bill on their iPhone, for example. This has made voter ID easier for young, tech-savvy voters (people my age wouldn’t even know we could identify ourselves that way). The board has also issued strict rules prohibiting the hassling of voters at polling places. And perhaps most important, it will determine the boundaries of electoral districts in the state.

In Alabama, the legislature determines electoral districts. That means the majority party draws the district lines. Election rules are determined by the secretary of state, who is chosen in a partisan election. This is not to say that Alabama’s current legislators or Secretary of State Beth Chapman are unprincipled. But like all elected officials, they have multiple loyalties.

Politics will always be political. But there are ways to minimize political influence on elections. Can we do in Alabama what they did in Wisconsin?

Richard H. Schmidt is a retired Episcopal priest, editor and author who lives in Fairhope. He can be reached at courier@gulfcoastnewspapers.com.