Few states have suffered more than Wisconsin from the damage done by partisan gerrymandering. Wisconsin has a legislature that derives its power not from the will of the people but from state Assembly and Senate district lines that were mangled by Republicans who are more interested in retaining power than they are in representative democracy.
The budget fight that is now playing out in Wisconsin results from gerrymandering. Last November, voters chose Democrats in every statewide contest — for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer and U.S. senator. Democrats also won roughly 53 percent of the statewide vote for Assembly seats — securing 1,306,878 votes to 1,103,505.
As in the statewide races, that was a spike for the Democrats. The level of support the party gained in Assembly races was up almost 8 percentage points from two years earlier.
Yet only one Republican seat flipped to the Democrats, and the Republicans retained roughly the same overwhelming majority — 63 seats to 36 — that they have held since they redrew the maps in 2011. The numbers confirm the view of Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz, of Oshkosh, who explains that his party is “competing on the most uneven playing field in the United States.”
There is no question that, as Hintz told Isthmus last fall, gerrymandering has “disenfranchised thousands of Democrats.”
If Wisconsin had proportional representation, where seats were allotted based on the precise will of the voters, it’s likely that the Assembly would be controlled by the Democrats and that control of the Senate would be closely divided. If Wisconsin simply had fair legislative district maps, it is harder to predict which party would have control — but the lines of division would be narrower, and the prospects for cooperation (fostered by even a few compromise-oriented members) would be greater.
That would have made it far easier for Gov. Tony Evers, the Democrat who last year defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker, to advance his “people’s budget” agenda for expanding access to health care and increasing support for education. Unfortunately, because Republicans retain their gerrymandered dominance of the Legislature, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, have created a disruptive and disrespectful process. Though Evers is proposing good and popular ideas, they have more often than not been neglected and rejected.
This is a classic example of how gerrymandering thwarts democracy and good government. And Wisconsinites don’t like it. That’s why they have battled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — winning key federal court victories — in hopes of addressing the crisis.
Last week, however, the majority on the high court decided to check out. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for himself and four conservative colleagues, acknowledged what is obviously true: “Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust.” Yet Roberts concluded that “the fact that such gerrymandering is ‘incompatible with democratic principles’ … does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary.”
As such, the high court effectively ordered the federal courts to stand down. That starkly irresponsible decision abandoned democracy to the wolves of electoral privilege, legislative chicanery, and political high finance.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent that the Supreme Court’s decision “debased and dishonored our democracy.” It was an appropriately blunt assessment of the damage done. As Kagan observed with regard to the cases of gerrymandering in Maryland and North Carolina that the court examined before making the decision, “These gerrymanders enabled politicians to entrench themselves in office as against voters’ preferences. They promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will. They encouraged a politics of polarization and dysfunction. If left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government.”
Wisconsin’s battle against gerrymandering was not directly addressed by the Supreme Court decision. But it was upended by it. That’s because Wisconsin needs federal intervention on the issue, as our state Supreme Court has been corrupted by a conservative majority that does the bidding of Vos and Fitzgerald.
Gov. Tony Evers describes the ruling by the Roberts court as “devastating for our democracy, our system of government, the right to participate in the democratic process, and the notion that people should come before politics. Partisan gerrymandering is exactly how we end up with a (legislative) majority party in power that doesn’t care that 70 percent of our state supports things like Medicaid expansion.”
The judicial route to justice has been shut down. So now Wisconsinites must take it upon themselves. We need to break the grip of gerrymandering, with new maps (which will be drawn following the 2020 census) and, ideally, with a new process.
Evers, to his immense credit, has signaled that he is ready to do his part. “The people should get to choose their representatives, not the other way around,” he said. “If the Supreme Court chooses to sleep on the job and ignores its duty to remedy the widespread constitutional harms across our country, then in Wisconsin we will do everything we can to ensure elections in our state are fair, accessible, and free. That includes fighting for nonpartisan redistricting and vetoing gerrymandered maps that arrive on my desk.”
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