Election data from the midterms definitively demonstrates that the issue is problematic.
Wisconsin is considered “ground zero” for gerrymandering. The restructured political maps for my home state, which were drawn in 2011 in accordance to the Constitutionally-mandated tradition following the U.S. Census the year prior, had been done in secret by the Republicans who had just come to power in the state legislature during the “Tea Party” wave of elections in 2010.
The process lacked transparency, to say the least — and when it was all over, Republicans ensured their methods for creating maps that put them at an unfair advantage couldn’t be pored over with open records requests, as they deleted many of the files on how they produced them, even though they were explicitly told not to do so.
Republicans were poised to draw the maps on their own again after the 2020 Census, but a funny thing happened last year: a Democratic candidate for governor, Tony Evers, ousted the Republican incumbent Scott Walker from office by one of the slimmest margins in state history. The change in leadership in the executive branch meant that Republicans, who still control the legislature, would have a “check” on their boundary-drawing shenanigans, as Gov. Evers can veto their maps if he doesn’t like them.
But Evers has a different idea in mind for re-drawing the maps, one that should be given serious consideration, especially since most Wisconsinites back it themselves.
Instead of the constant political bickering that will ultimately ensue between the two sides, he’s proposed in his state budget (submitted to the legislature in late February) to change the map-making process altogether, an idea that would essentially copy the “Iowa model” of redistricting where an independent, nonpartisan body, overseen by representatives of both major parties, would draw the maps without taking into consideration geopolitical advantages that one party or the other may have.
The proposal would even ban officials from considering where incumbents live when they redraw districts, according to reporting from Madison.com. “The people should get to choose their elected officials, not the other way around,” Evers said in a statement.
It’s not just an idea that Democrats would like — most Wisconsinites overall want it, too. According to a recent Marquette University Law School poll, more than 7-in-10 said they wanted a nonpartisan body, similar to what the governor is proposing, to draw up the maps rather than a political party being in charge of them. Even 59 percent of respondents in the poll who identify as Republican want a nonpartisan organization drawing the maps instead.
Wisconsin’s gerrymandered districts are so blatant that anyone can see them for what they are. For instance, despite the gubernatorial race being an essential tie between the Republican and Democratic candidates for office (Evers won by just over 1 percent), the state legislature still wound up with a Republican majority in the lower house, which is called the state Assembly in Wisconsin. This was in spite of the fact that a majority of residents cast votes for Democrats in Assembly races across the state last fall.
In fact, the margin for selecting Democrats was even wider than the gubernatorial race. More than 1.3 million Wisconsinites voted for a Democratic Assembly candidate in 2018, representing 53 percent of the overall vote, while 1.1 million, or 45 percent, voted for a candidate from the GOP.
Yet these numbers do not reflect an institutional win in the legislature for Democrats. Of the 99 seats up for grabs in the Assembly in 2018, Democrats managed to win just 36 of them; Republicans, on the other hand, got 63 seats.
Winning the Assembly is indeed an uphill climb for Democrats. But one would think with a majority-vote win that the number of districts won should be more congruent with what the people wanted.
Republican Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos, however, disputes the assertion that a majority of voters preferred Democrats to lead the legislature. He doesn’t agree that voters were denied the right to choose the body’s members due to gerrymandering.
Instead, Vos has argued that Republicans were more strategic — the end results cited above are skewed in favor of Democrats, he said, because the GOP in the state didn’t run a candidate in more than a third of the seats up for election, while Democrats ran a candidate in 91 out of 99 possible seats in the Assembly.
Republicans decided “in the last election cycle to not run a candidate as a Republican for every single seat in the Assembly,” Vos explained, per reporting from the Racine Journal Times. “Democrats made a different decision. They made a decision to run somebody in [almost] every seat thinking they were able to catch some kind of ‘blue wave’ and either take back the majority or make some significant progress.”
Vos seems to suggest here that the voters of Democratic strongholds — mainly in Milwaukee and Dane Counties — shouldn’t be considered in the final “popular vote” count when we take into consideration how stacked against the odds Democrats’ chances of winning the Assembly truly are. To some extent, he has a point: since Republicans didn’t run anybody in those districts, it’s hard to make a compelling case that the final “popular vote” count is accurate.
But there’s still definitive evidence that gerrymandering from the GOP in 2011 unfairly favored that political party. I’m not one to argue that we disregard the opinions and preferences of people in Democratic counties where Republicans didn’t run a candidate — those residents deserve a say in state government just as much as voters from other regions do. But let’s humor Speaker Vos for a moment here, and take a look at races that only he wants to examine.
Even if we only observe races where a true “competition” occurred, where a Republican and a Democrat both ran, not counting write-in candidates, the evidence clearly shows a biased set of maps in favor of the Republicans.
There were 59 such Assembly races where a person from both major parties was officially on the ballot. I recently added up the votes from every Democratic candidate for office as well as every Republican who ran in those races alone, and found that there was indeed a clear preference for Republicans among voters in those areas.
Which, again, is to be expected: Republicans didn’t run in strongly-held Democratic districts across the state, and Democrats put someone up for election in many Republican-preferred places where they frankly had very little chance of winning.
Within the 59 races, however, out of 1.57 million ballots cast, Republican candidates received 906,779 votes, or about 57.7 percent. Democrats received the endorsement of 654,274 residents in those races, about 41.6 percent of the vote.
If we look solely at those contests and transpose them directly to the Assembly as a whole, we arguably see a slight skewing of “what should have been.” If these races reflected the results overall, Democrats should have received five or six extra seats in the lower chamber of the legislature.
Again, this discounts the races that were won by Democrats, where no Republican was put up as a challenger. Yet even on these terms set forth by Vos, we see evidence of the difficulties that Democrats have in winning districts in more competitive areas.
But gerrymandering in the state is worse than even those numbers might suggest.
Based on the outcomes of those 59 legislative districts, you’d expect to see a proportional number of seats won by Republicans and Democrats, something that reflects the percentage of votes that each party won. Fifty-seven percent of voters chose Republican candidates, so of the 59 districts up for grabs they should win around 33 of them, for instance.
Conversely, 41 percent of voters wanted Democrats to win. Certainly the party doesn’t deserve to have as many seats awarded to them as Republicans do based on proportion, as some of those votes are going to go toward candidates that lost to their political rivals. So 41 percent of seats shouldn’t necessarily be given to Democrats — but in a fair map you would expect a reasonable portion of the seats to go their way.
Instead, even though Democrats won more than 2-out-of-5 votes in those 59 contested races, they only managed to be victorious in just five of those races total.
Forty-one percent of the vote shouldn’t result in just eight percent of the races won in any given number of legislative seats up for grabs. This is clear evidence that the maps restrain the voices of Democratic-leaning voters from being heard in the state’s legislative branch.
Evers’s plan to put into place a fairer way of drawing the political maps won’t make the legislature 100 percent reflective of what the voters want — those who chose a losing candidate will still have their ballots counted in a “popular vote” tally that some may say shows their preferences were ignored. But the “Iowa model” for redistricting would go a long way toward making districts more fair, giving both parties a fair shake at winning based on courting voters to their side rather than cordoning off residents to fit politicians own ends.
Districts in Wisconsin were drawn in 2011 with the clear intent of making things difficult for the party that was out of power at the time, and to preserve a Republican majority in the statehouse even when a majority of citizens could have other desires. A change in how maps are made is desperately needed, one that doesn’t favor either political party but rather puts the rights of the people to choose their own representatives ahead of everything else.
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