A while back, my family went to see the Harlem Globetrotters. While the attraction was the wizardry and comic antics of the Globetrotters, there was supposedly a basketball game being played. The Globetrotters faced the Washington Generals, a team whose only purpose is to be a foil for the Globetrotters. Following the script, the Generals dutifully lost for about the 2,000th straight time.
What’s similar between a fixed basketball exhibition and the recent Wisconsin legislative elections? They both feature comic high jinks (although, unlike the Globetrotters, the politicians’ antics are probably unintentional) and they are both a fixed contest. The Republicans who control state government have rigged the elections for control of the Legislature so that they will remain in power virtually regardless of the votes of the state’s electorate.
Wisconsin voted for Democrats Barack Obama and Tammy Baldwin by decisive margins. Voters also cast 193,000 more votes for Democrats than Republicans in the contests for state Assembly. Yet the Republicans ended up with more than 60 percent of the seats in the Assembly.
How did that happen? The Republican Legislature engaged in such partisan gerrymandering of the legislative districts that they virtually guaranteed themselves a majority in the state Legislature. Like in the Globetrotters game, the result was never in doubt.
Every 10 years, the state must redraw legislative district boundaries to adjust for population changes. Those population changes, based on the census, are modest, and a few small adjustments would suffice to equalize the population in all the districts. Instead, legislative Republicans, in a secretive process financed with your tax dollars, engaged in a wholesale change to the legislative map. By packing Democratic voters into a few districts and drawing lines for a majority of districts that would almost guarantee a Republican win, the Republicans stacked the deck to give themselves a large majority in the Legislature despite losing the popular vote. When I was playing sports, that was called cheating.
Democrats, while victims of the Republican gerrymandering, are not blameless. When the Democrats controlled state government, legislation was introduced by myself and others for an independent, nonpartisan system of redistricting similar to what has worked well in Iowa for decades. Some Democratic legislators, fearful that independent redistricting might mean a tougher re-election run for themselves, blocked the effort. I bet some of those folks wish they had a do-over.
The situation in the state Senate is somewhat less extreme because it is harder to gerrymander the larger Senate districts to the same extent as the Assembly. Nonetheless, with the gerrymandered lines, it will be hard for Democrats to take back control of that body as well.
The fact that we will not have a real election for majority control of the Legislature during the next decade should concern everyone regardless of party. It’s the prospect of competitive elections that keep politicians honest (or in some cases, less dishonest).
In some countries, the results of elections are rigged by the government to keep themselves in power — through techniques like the miscounting of ballots by the controlling regime, a prohibition on opposition candidates or threats against opposing campaigns.
In Wisconsin legislative elections, the technique for fixing the election is subtler but the result is the same. The party in power has fixed the elections to ensure their continued power.
Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves on the Sierra Club’s national political committee.