The Fahey Q&A with Carlene Bechen, who's organizing Wisconsinites to fight for fair voting maps
Since organizing the Voters Not Politicians 2018 ballot initiative that put citizens in charge of drawing Michigan's legislative maps, Fahey has been the founding executive director of The People, which is forming statewide networks to promote government accountability. She regularly interviews colleagues in the world of democracy reform for The Fulcrum.
Carlen Bechen is the organizing director of the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, which advocates for an independent, nonpartisan redistricting method in Wisconsin. The group also engages the public in the process of adopting and implementing nonpartisan maps.
Our recent conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Fahey: Tell us about your background and what brought you to lead this effort.
Bechen: I'm a retired public educator of nearly 30 years. Ten years ago, after the current maps were drawn, I experienced personally the decline of our public education system in Wisconsin from one of the top-rated in the nation to 24th. And despite testifying with hundreds of others before the Wisconsin State Legislature's Joint Finance Committee in numerous budget cycles, I watched support for public education wane. It was then that I realized that legislators didn't need to be responsive or accountable to us — the gerrymandered maps that were drawn after the 2010 census guaranteed them victory.
After the 2018 election, when Democrats won all the statewide elections and Republicans continued to maintain a dominant advantage in the Legislature, it became clear that the voting maps were the problem. So my activist colleagues in the Oregon Area Progressives decided to convene a statewide summit for others who wanted to get involved and take meaningful action. We'd been told too many times to call our legislators to no avail. That's where I met you, Katie.
Fahey: What are the main issues the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition is confronting and the reforms you're promoting?
Bechen: Right now, we're dealing with the most pressing issue, the proposed GOP maps for the next decade. We expect the Legislature to pass these rigged maps along party lines. Then they'll go to the governor, who's said he will veto any maps based on the old maps, which these are.
Our long-term goal is a permanent fix to this issue: the establishment through legislation of a nonpartisan process for creating new voting congressional and state legislative district maps.
Fahey: How can people support your work?
Bechen: There are so many ways to get involved — from talking with people in their networks to joining a local grassroots fair maps team. We provide a list of events and a petition asking the Legislature to pass nonpartisan redistricting legislation. They can also sign up to receive our newsletter and for guidance on writing their legislators and letters to the editor. And they can follow us on Facebook and share our content.
Fahey: What's been happening in the Legislature regarding the redistricting process?
Bechen: Since June, two nonpartisan redistricting bills — one in the Senate and one in the Assembly — have languished in committee. Concerned Wisconsinites have called their legislators and written letters to the editor since the bills were introduced. Back in September, we coordinated a virtual Legislative Lobby Day, all online. Two hundred twenty-one people from around the state participated. They held 115 meetings with 64 legislators. It was a big deal! Our two asks: pass nonpartisan redistricting legislation and take up the maps drawn by the People's Maps Commission.
Fahey: Tell us about the People's Maps Commission.
Bechen: After being elected in 2018, Gov. Tony Evers included money in his first budget to create a nonpartisan commission for redistricting, which, not surprisingly, was stripped out by a GOP-led committee. So he created the People's Maps Commission by executive order. The commissioners are ordinary Wisconsin residents who applied to do this volunteer work. They couldn't be politicians or lobbyists or hold office with any political party. The PMC has worked since the fall of 2020 to produce voting district maps through a transparent process with public input.
Virtual hearings were held from October 2020 through March 2021 in each of Wisconsin's eight congressional districts. They heard from experts and regular Wisconsinites alike on everything from legal considerations to what a "community of interest" map looks like. They opened a portal for regular folks to submit maps using map-drawing software, gathering over 1,800 maps and written comments from the public. Then they created draft maps open to public comment. The commissioners just delivered their final maps to the governor earlier this month.
While the Legislature's maps are extremely unbalanced in terms of representation, county splits, compactness and contiguity, the PMC's maps are much better on all those criteria. It's not just me saying that. Both sets of maps were graded by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project taking into account numerous criteria. The legislators' maps all received overall F grades, while the PMC's set of maps earned overall grades of two A's and a B.
[Note: Since this conversation the Wisconsin Legislature gave final approval to the GOP's maps along party lines. Evers has promised to veto the maps, an act that will send the matter to the courts.]
Fahey: Fill us in on recent developments and the impact the citizens of Wisconsin have had on the process.
Bechen: The Assembly and Senate just held their first and only joint hearing in late October on the legislative and congressional maps they released only a week prior. It was awe-inspiring to see over 200 concerned citizens come to the state Capitol to register their opposition to the maps being proposed by the GOP leadership! More than 50 people testified in the nine-hour hearing. Of those, only the Republican Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader spoke in favor of their new maps.
People felt very empowered by that showing. Folks who previously weren't even really aware of what redistricting was are now full-on activists fighting for fair maps. We are in many ways happy warriors. This is not easy work — it can be very frustrating and a lot of times it's hard to keep going. But we lift one another up, and the more that we do that, the larger our movement becomes. People know this is the right thing, and the more we can promote what's right and fair, the more people are drawn to our movement.
I firmly believe we will prevail. I would not be doing this if I didn't believe we would ultimately succeed.
Fahey: If you were speaking with a high school student or a new immigrant to this country, how would you describe what being an American means to you?
Bechen: As a former social studies teacher, this is something I've thought about a lot. Being an American is an awesome privilege and it carries with it a lot of responsibility, because the United States, for better or worse, impacts events globally in a way no other nation does. So for me, being an American means being aware. It means taking that responsibility seriously, and doing my best to make my little piece of the world a better place for everyone.
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