Tuesday, September 7, 2021
It’s that time again.
Every ten years, the federal government conducts a census. It counts everyone in the country (or at least it tries to), in a process that’s required by the United States Constitution. When the census is finished, we know how many people live on every block in every city in the country.
That’s an important number for a lot of reasons. A big reason is the distribution of federal money. Allocation of a lot of that money is based on population count, so it’s important to us in Sauk County that all our residents get counted.
It’s also important for voting.
Voters don’t vote directly for specific pieces of legislation. Instead, they vote for representatives who act on their behalf — city aldermen, for example, state representatives, state senators — and county commissioners.
Sauk County is divided up into districts, and each district elects a commissioner to represent the voters of that district. Cities, villages, and townships do the same thing. Reedsburg, for example, is divided up into four precincts, each of which elects a single alderman to the city council.
For those representatives to fairly represent voters, it’s important that each of them represent roughly the same number of voters. It wouldn’t be fair, for example, if one city alderman represented one thousand voters and another represented just ten. Those ten voters would have an unfair advantage every time the council voted.
So, every time there’s a new census (every ten years), governmental units in Wisconsin — the state itself, all the counties, and all the various cities, villages and townships — take a fresh look at the way they’ve divided up voters into districts, precincts and wards. With fresh population data in hand, they look at how population has shifted within their boundaries, which districts have gotten a lot bigger, which didn’t grow so much, and maybe even some that got smaller.
Then they redraw the lines of their districts (or precincts or wards) to fit the new numbers. That process is called redistricting.
We’re just starting that process now.
It’s our job as commissioners to draw lines that are fair and make logical sense.
The federal government has just delivered the numbers from last year’s census, and Sauk County needs to look at those numbers and redraw its district boundaries. The timeline for that process is mandated by state law, and we’re already behind schedule. Because of the pandemic, it was harder than usual to conduct the census last year, so things got delayed, and we’re getting our numbers a lot later than expected.
So we have to move quickly.
We really have two jobs to get done. The first is to agree on the number of commissioners we’ll have on the board. The second is to outline the districts that will elect each commissioner.
HOW MANY COMMISSIONERS DO WE NEED
Every ten years, along with the census, the board has a chance to reconsider the number of commissioners we’ll have on the board for the next ten years.
There are currently 31 supervisors on the board. Based on the census numbers we had ten years ago, that meant each supervisor represented about 1,993 people. Of course, the county has grown since then, and today each commissioner really represents quite a few more than that. (And, since population growth wasn’t necessarily even across all the districts, some commissioners undoubtedly represent more people than others — which is why we do redistricting).
Each ten years, in addition to redistricting, we also have a once-in-ten-years opportunity to change the number of supervisors. There were some supervisors on the current board who wanted to reduce the number of board members as low as 25, even though the population has gone up. However, after some debate, the board left the number untouched. There will therefore be 31 board members for the coming ten years (unless there's a citizen referendum to change the board composition).
DEFINING DISTRICT BOUNDARIES
When we divide the county up into districts, we’re aiming for two things:
A fair allocation
A logical allocation
To some extent, drawing district boundaries is a mechanical task. The county has GIS (Geographic Information System) software that can take the census numbers and divide the county up by population numbers. Without any guidance from us, it could distribute the voters into thirty-one districts of almost exactly the same population size.
That would be fair, in terms of each voter having equal representation.
But those districts might make no logical sense. For example, without any guidance, the GIS system could simply divide the county up into strips from top to bottom, east to west. But that would lead to very odd and illogical districts, where voters across a district have little in common other than longitude.
So it’s our job as commissioners to give the software some guidance and to draw lines that make logical sense.
One thing we do is take the boundaries of other governmental units into account. It makes sense, for example, to draw districts that match the boundaries of cities. So, for example, we’ll try to fit five districts neatly within the boundaries of the City of Reedsburg and six districts within the boundaries of Baraboo.
There are multiple good reasons to do that.
One is simple convenience. It’s a lot easier to conduct elections when, for example, Reedsburg’s aldermanic precincts and the Sauk County’s commissioner districts have the same boundaries.
Another is common interests. Voters within the boundaries of a city are much more likely to have common interests with other voters within those boundaries. The same thing applies to townships.
So we’ll strive to make the boundaries logical. We’ll also work with the other governmental units and do our best to see that the districts we draw make sense for them, too.
FLEXIBILITY AND FAIRNESS
It’s not really possible to create logical districts that each have exactly the same number of voters, although that would be the ideal goal. If we really attempted to do that, we’d end up drawing district lines through the middle of city blocks, maybe even through a household (sorry, you’re in a different district than your spouse).
We have some flexibility. The state considers a 3% difference in the number of voters within districts to be fair. If the difference gets much larger than that, it’s troubling. At 5% it’s considered obviously unfair and illegal.
So with that in mind, we try to draw districts that are fair and logical.
There’s another part of fairness that I want to mention.
I said earlier that we aim to group voters that are likely to have common interests into the same district.
One place where that can be difficult is around the edges of cities. For example, what happens if we divide Reedsburg up into five districts and find that one of those districts is too small? Do we reach outside the city boundaries and grab some rural voters to include in that district?
That’s definitely not a good solution, in my opinion. Those voters have more interests in common with their rural neighbors. If we include them into a city district, we’re burying their votes and their influence. Their commissioner won’t know and understand the issues of those voters like he or she will know and understand the issues of city residents.
In a sense, we’d have cheated those rural voters out of having an effective vote.
We’ll do our best not to create situations like that.
But you, as a citizen, also have input into this process.
Now that we have the census numbers, we’re under the gun to get this job done. Here’s the rough schedule:
September 16 -- a draft plan will be presented to the Sauk County Board of Supervisors; local governmental units will use that plan to redraw their own lines.
October 7 -- local governmental units must have defined and published their lines
November 11 -- at a special meeting, the board will officially adopt the plan
You’ll have a chance to give your input at the public hearings. And you can also contact me directly through this website — just use the contact button.
If you have thoughts, let us know.
I mentioned above that we, as supervisors, will do our best to establish districts that are fair and logical. We know how to do that, and that’s what we’ll do. Thanks to the county’s GIS system and staff, we’ve got the tools to do that.
The state legislature has the same tools. In theory, it should have the same goals. Instead, however, it is using those tools to create state-level boundaries that ignore logic and ignore fairness. Their goal is to create boundaries that give their party an advantage. Remember how I said we would try to keep our Reedsburg supervisory districts within the city boundaries, because pulling in rural voters would cheat them out of their vote? Well, redistricting at the state level is aimed at doing exactly that — cheating some voters out of their vote by creating districts where some voters have no real influence.
Right now, this is being done by a Republican legislature, but it’s been done in the past by Democrats, and it’s just plain wrong.
If the state legislature can’t do the redistricting job as honestly as Sauk County — and apparently it can’t — then it shouldn’t be allowed to do it.
I believe Wisconsin should shift the job of redistricting out of the hands of politicians and into the hands of a non-partisan commission.