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2020 election again shows lopsided Republican legislative maps
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ELECTION 2020 | STATE LEGISLATURE

2020 election again shows lopsided Republican legislative maps

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Continuing a decade-long trend in Wisconsin due in part to GOP-drawn legislative maps, Democratic candidates on Tuesday secured fewer legislative seats than what their statewide vote total would suggest.

A Wisconsin State Journal analysis of unofficial vote totals in Wisconsin legislative races Tuesday shows that Democratic candidates received 46% of total votes cast in state Assembly races, but ended up with only 38 of 99 seats after winning two new districts. In state Senate races, Democratic candidates secured about 47% of total votes, but only picked up 38% of the seats on the ballot and now control only 12 of 33 seats.

Results are considered preliminary until officially canvassed, and The Associated Press has not called all state legislative races yet. The data does not include write-in votes.

Legislature

“When people are denying the existence of a very effective gerrymander in Wisconsin, they’re basically asking us to deny what we can see with our own two eyes,” said Anthony Chergosky, UW-La Crosse assistant professor of political science. “You look at the maps, you look at the statistics, you look at the voting patterns, you look at the discrepancy between the popular vote and the number of seats won, and it’s plain as day that this was not just a gerrymandered map, but a very effective one.”

This year’s voting breakdown wasn’t as stark as in 2018, when Democrats swept all statewide elections and Democratic Assembly candidates secured about 53% of total votes cast, but they only ended up with 36% of the chamber’s seats. In 2016, Republicans garnered 52% of votes cast, yet won 65% of the Assembly seats.

“Once again, the rigging of the maps by the Republicans in 2011 has paid off,” said Matthew Rothschild, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign spending. “Because of gerrymandering, we have unfair representation in Wisconsin.”

Minor shifts

The GOP added two seats in the state Senate and came within 600 votes of securing a third district, which would have granted Republicans a veto-proof majority in that chamber.

Republicans secured victories in the 10th Senate District, with incumbent Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, losing to Rep. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, and in the 30th Senate District, with Green Bay lawyer Eric Wimberger defeating Democratic De Pere City Council member Jonathon Hansen.

In the 32nd Senate District, Democrat Brad Pfaff declared victory over former state Sen. Dan Kapanke while up by 589 votes. The Associated Press has not yet called the race.

As it stands, Republicans look to hold a 31-12 advantage in the Senate next year. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, won his bid for the 5th Congressional District and will vacate his 13th Senate District seat. However, that district has historically trended Republican.

In the Assembly, Democrats added two seats following victories in suburban Milwaukee districts. In the 23rd Assembly District, Democrat Deb Andraca declared victory over incumbent Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and in the 13th Assembly District, Democrat Sara Rodriguez was up by 725 votes over incumbent Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield. The Associated Press has not yet called the 13th Assembly District race.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said those gains were made despite GOP-drawn maps, signifying a shift among suburban voters.

“Both in 2018 and 2020 you’ve seen a full-turnout election — Republicans and Democrats turning out throughout the state,” Hintz said. “If both sides turnout high and you’ve got districts that are not competitive to begin with, you’re going to have to find spots.”

Republicans still look to hold a 61-38 majority in the Assembly next year.

Earlier this year, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin launched a Save the Veto campaign aimed at preventing Republicans from making major gains in either chamber.

“The only question in this election was if the Republicans were going to obtain a supermajority,” Chergosky said. “I think it’s pretty telling that the Democrats flipping the majority has never been a plausible outcome.”

GOP responds

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Kit Beyer, spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, said in an email that “Democrats’ argument for redistricting reform fails miserably when you look closer at the ticket splitting.” She cited the 2018 U.S. Senate race, in which Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, of Madison, won in 55 state Assembly districts — 19 of which also went to GOP Assembly candidates.

“Wisconsinites in 61 Assembly districts voted to have a Republican to represent them,” Beyer said of Tuesday’s election. “It’s not a statewide vote for individual representation. That’s not how our representative Democracy works.”

Republicans often have downplayed concerns of gerrymandered districts in the state and instead have said the GOP’s successes are the result of campaign efforts and strong candidates, as well as Democrats being clustered in cities.

“Republicans have better candidates,” Vos, R-Rochester, said. “I credit our strong incumbents and great recruits for creating the conservative majority in the Assembly.”

But Democrats often point to examples of disconnects between what the majority of Wisconsin voters want and what the GOP-led Legislature has delivered.

For example, a Marquette Law School Poll released last September found 80% of Wisconsinites supported expanded background checks for gun purchases — including nearly 70% of gun owners. However, Republicans the following November refused to take up discussion or a vote on gun control legislation in special sessions ordered by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Polling also has found the majority of Wisconsinites support expanding Medicaid and legalizing medical marijuana, but neither issue has gained much traction in the GOP-led Legislature.

Fitzgerald’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Drawing the maps

Tuesday’s election follows similar trends since Republicans, with full control of state government, were able to draw maps in a tightly controlled room at a law office in 2011. Democrats were not allowed to take part in the process.

Democrats and others have argued partisan gerrymandering is unfair by giving Republicans a built-in electoral advantage. Political parties in power at the time of redistricting can amplify that power by two methods: “packing and cracking.”

“Packing” occurs when many supporters of the party out of power are condensed into a small number of districts, giving them a few overwhelming wins. The remaining supporters of the minority party are then “cracked,” or spread out across a large number of districts so they consistently get under 50% of the vote, handing steady victories to the party in power.

Such a process is aided by the fact that large pockets of Democratic voters tend to live in the state’s more urban areas, such as Dane County and Milwaukee, Chergosky said.

“The whole name of the game is cramming the other party’s voters into a small number of districts and the geographic clustering of Democratic voters makes that easier to do,” he said.

No clear path

Evers this year created a commission tasked with drawing and proposing nonpartisan maps to the Legislature next year, but Republican leaders already have signaled plans to reject those maps and draw their own.

“Republicans started working even before I took office to prevent us from getting things done — it’s got to stop,” Evers said in an email last week. “We can’t afford to have these same maps for another 10 years, it’s just too important.”

Evers also promised to veto any partisan gerrymandered maps that come to his desk. With the governor’s veto power still intact following Tuesday’s election, the matter is likely again headed to state or federal court.

“I think it’s probably realistic to assume the worst-case scenario should be court-drawn maps,” Hintz said.

Also on Tuesday, more than a dozen counties and municipalities approved nonbinding referendums in favor of nonpartisan redistricting. The referendum passed in all 11 counties and three municipalities. A total of 28 of the state’s 72 counties and 16 municipalities have passed such a referendum over the last few years.

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