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John Nichols: Robin Vos is a threat to democracy

John Nichols: Robin Vos is a threat to democracy

Robin Vos (copy)

Members of the Assembly applaud Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, as he speaks after Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers' virtual State of the State Address on Jan. 12.

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Good news. Wisconsin’s population increased by 3.6%, to 5,893,718, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. That’s not a huge gain, but it’s sufficient to maintain the state’s current level of representation in the U.S. House.

That avoids a repeat of the pattern of the past century, which saw Wisconsin drop from 11 House seats to 10 after the 1930 census, from 10 to nine after the 1970 Census, and from nine to eight after the 2000 census.

The Great Lakes states have been hard hit by population shifts over the past century — losing House seats as states in the south and west have gained. On the basis of the 2020 census numbers, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania will each lose a seat. Only Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin will maintain the same level of representation.

So does that mean Wisconsin’s congressional district maps will remain the same in 2022? No.

Maps will be redrawn. Wisconsin’s population has grown, and people have moved. The state’s congressional and legislative districts need to be reworked to reflect the changes that have taken place over the past decade.

The question is whether the process of redrawing the maps will respect the role of elections in ascertaining and empowering the will of the people. Put simply: Will the new maps be democratic?

The answer to that question is another question. Will Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, be allowed to game the process as he and his henchmen did a decade ago?

After the 2010 Census, Republicans diverted millions of state tax dollars to private attorneys and consultants who produced gerrymandered maps. The hyper-partisan process of disenfranchising the vast majority of the state’s voters was carried out in secret. But the damage they’d done was writ large across the elections of the ensuing decade. Even when dramatically more voters cast ballots for Democrats in federal and state elections, Republicans held their seats and their illicit majorities.

Democrats have since 2017 won statewide races for president, U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, state superintendent of public instruction and several seats on the state Supreme Court. Yet, Republicans have retained their 5-3 advantage in the state’s U.S. House delegation, and their overwhelming majorities in the state Assembly and Senate.

Vos is desperate to maintain this gerrymandered advantage for his party. But his scheming was upended last week, when Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Ehlke voided crooked contracts that Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, had arranged to pay private lawyers to organize another round of behind-closed-doors gerrymandering.

That won’t be the end of the fight. As Fair Elections Project director Sachin Chheda says, “We all know that Robin Vos and his allies will literally stop at nothing to try to rig the maps for another decade.” But Ehlke’s decision suggests how the redistricting process can be reclaimed for the people.

Democracy won’t come easily. There will be more litigation, and Gov. Evers will have to have his veto pen at the ready to block Vos' gerrymandered maps. But this is a fight that can, and must, be won in order to restore the will of the people as the guiding premise for Wisconsin elections.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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