Politics / December 28, 2023

Wisconsin Prepares to Crush a Slithering Republican Gerrymander

A newly progressive state Supreme Court has opened the way for scrapping rigged election maps and renewing the promise of representative democracy in a key battleground state.

John Nichols

The Wisconsin Supreme Court listens to arguments from Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Anthony D. Russomanno, representing Governor Tony Evers, during a redistricting hearing at the state capitol, November 21, 2023, in Madison, Wis.

(Ruthie Hauge /T he Capital Times via AP)

More than a century ago, Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette declared, “We are slow to realize that democracy is a life; and involves continual struggle.” The proudly radical progressive leader explained, “It is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might the encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can even be nearly approximated.”

Because of the reforms La Follette and his allies instituted in the early 1900s, Wisconsin served as America’s laboratory of democracy for the better part of 100 years. Wisconsin structured its elections, and the governing that extended from them, with an eye toward keeping La Follette’s promise that “the will of the people shall be the law of the land.”

But at the dawn of the 20th century, extreme right-wing forces, financed by out-of-state billionaires, took over the machinery of state government and reorganized elections in a way that killed off representative democracy across much of Wisconsin.

When former Governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies came to power after the “Republican wave” election of 2010, they knew that their personalities and policies would eventually lose favor with the voters. So they determined to make the voters irrelevant in elections for the state legislative branch.

The strategy worked. Even as Wisconsin has trended toward the Democrats in national and state elections, gerrymandered district lines gave Republicans overwhelming control over the state Assembly and Senate. Republican legislative leaders retained a veto power over Wisconsin democracy even after Democrat Tony Evers defeated Walker in 2018 and even after voters reelected Evers in 2022.

But the ground began to shift on the Friday before Christmas, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court determined that the rigged maps that sustained Republican power were unconstitutional and that they would need to be redrawn along fair and competitive lines in time for the 2024 election.

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The court examined the question of whether the state’s 99 Assembly districts and 33 Senate districts met the state Constitution’s requirement that they must be reasonably compact and contiguous—as opposed to being contorted in ways that ProPublica recently characterized as “bizarre.” A 4-3 majority concluded, “At least 50 of 99 assembly districts and at least 20 of 33 senate districts violate this mandate, rendering them unconstitutional.”

The ruling opens up the prospect that Democrats—who have won 14 of the past 17 statewide elections, including the 2020 presidential election, the last two elections for governor, and the last two elections for attorney general—could regain control of the legislature for the first time since 2010. After the court’s ruling came down, Greta Neubauer, a Racine Democrat who is the minority leader in the state Assembly, proclaimed, “It’s a new day in Wisconsin.”

“For more than a decade, the will of the people has not been represented in the Wisconsin State Legislature,” Neubauer said. “Now, Wisconsinites have a fair shot at real representation.”

The court’s progressive majority took shape after voters ended control of the court by Walker-aligned conservatives last April—in a high-turnout election that saw Justice Janet Protasiewicz sweep to victory with a promise to renew Wisconsin’s historic commitment to fair elections and ethical governance. The new court has set up a fast timeline for the drawing of competitive maps. If Governor Evers and Republican legislators do not agree on fair maps over the next several weeks, which is generally seen as unlikely, the justices will draw district lines by March—assuring that they will be in place for 2024 state Assembly and Senate elections. Republicans have indicated that they will take the fight to retain their rigged maps to the US Supreme Court, which is dominated by conservative nominees of Republican presidents. But the federal jurists have generally shied away from state-level fights over partisan gerrymandering, except when narrowly defined voting-rights issues are involved.

This raises the prospect that within a matter of months, the GOP’s throttling of democracy in Wisconsin could come to an end. “At long last,” Evers said, “the gerrymandered maps Wisconsinites have endured for years might soon be history.”

Wisconsin Democrats have struggled for the past dozen years to renew the promise of fair elections in a state where Republicans did everything they could to thwart them.

Beginning in 2011, GOP legislators erected multiple impediments to voting rights, undermined independent oversight of campaigns and vote counting, and restructured election schedules so that key primaries would be held when universities were on summer break and families were on vacation. But the darkest manifestation of their antidemocratic strategy involved the radical redrawing of legislative district lines to assure that even when most Wisconsin voters cast Democratic ballots to elect Democratic legislators, they would end up with Republican-dominated legislative chambers. The rigging of the Wisconsin legislative district maps—described by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project as “some of the most extreme partisan gerrymanders in the United States”—was so draconian that Harvard’s Electoral Integrity Project, which studies the quality of elections around the world, gave the Wisconsin maps a rating of just 23 on a 100-point scale. That’s not just a failing grade for the US, the experts noted; that would be a failing grade for much of the world.

The rigging was so thorough that even when most voters backed Democrats, most legislative seats were filled by Republicans. In 2012, for instance, just 48.6 percent of voters backed Republican candidates for the Wisconsin Assembly, yet Republicans “won” 60 of 99 seats in the chamber. University of Wisconsin political science professor Ken Mayer determined that there was “no question—none—that the recent redistricting effort distorted the vote.” Yet, the maps remained in place, foiling the will of the people in election after election. In fact, it got worse over time, so much so that, in December 2018, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis determined that

Republicans enjoy a built-in 64-35 advantage in the partisan makeup of the 99 Assembly districts. In a hypothetical 50-50 election, in which there are equal numbers of Democratic and Republican voters in Wisconsin, no one crosses party lines and independents split down the middle, that translates into a massive 29-seat GOP advantage in the Assembly. That’s very close to the 27-seat margin (63-36) that Republicans won last month.

After the 2020 census, Wisconsin Democrats had hoped that new maps would be fairer. But Republicans, with a boost from the old conservative majority on the state’s high court, actually succeeded in making the gerrymander worse. Referring to what experts describe as “the efficiency gap”—a measurement of how many votes have no chance to affect an election outcome due to partisan districting—the Wisconsin Watch investigative reporting project concluded last year that“Wisconsin’s Assembly maps are more skewed than ever.”

They explained,

When Republicans redrew the lines again in 2021, they further boosted their advantage in the Assembly. Compared with nearly 1,000 statehouse elections across the country between 1972 and 2020, Wisconsin’s efficiency gap in 2018 ranked as the fourth most skewed toward Republicans at 15.4%, according to researchers at Harvard and George Washington universities. Wisconsin’s 2022 results were even more skewed at 16.6%[.]

In 2024, that efficiency gap might finally be closed, and representative democracy might finally be restored in a state where legislative Democrats see a path to victory for the first time in years. “If the maps that come out of the court are fair,” Neubauer said, “we absolutely have the opportunity to win a majority in Wisconsin.”

John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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