Voting is patriotic.
But when voters have little if any choice at the polls, it erodes the very purpose of our democracy — to allow the people a say in their government through elections.
The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance just documented how thin this fall’s ballots will be for state legislative races. More than 35 percent of Senate and Assembly seats are already decided because only one candidate is seeking each of those posts. And when you include races with only token third-party opposition or just primary contests, about half of all races for the Legislature will be decided before voters cast ballots Nov. 8.
The Taxpayers Alliance also found that the total number of candidates seeking legislative positions this election cycle — 224 — is the lowest in modern history, going back to at least 2000.
The taxpayer group notes that fewer incumbents are leaving office, which can deter challenges. But the group also identifies partisan redistricting as “one possible explanation” for the dramatic lack of choice.
We’ll go further than that: Letting the politicians draw the lines of the districts they represent is a huge reason for scant competition. And the erosion of voter influence is even worse than the group’s figures suggest.
Only 10 percent of legislative races are likely to be competitive this November, based on election results in 2014 and 2012, according to Common Cause in Wisconsin. Prior to that, in 2010, more than 23 percent of legislative races were competitive, meaning they were decided by 10 or fewer percentage points.
What changed is that Republicans who control the Legislature reshaped voting districts in 2011 to protect their majorities in the Senate and Assembly. And by doing so, they helped protect most of the incumbents of both parties.
The change to Senate districts in Racine and Kenosha counties highlights the problem. Before Republicans redrew voting district maps, Racine County was one of the most competitive Senate districts in the state.
By law, district maps had to be redrawn following the 2010 census to reflect population changes. But the GOP Legislature also used the process to its partisan advantage by dramatically skewing Racine’s district and, consequently, the once compact Kenosha County district to the south.
The two districts were basically split in half so they no longer neatly followed county lines. Instead, the cities of Racine and Kenosha were forced into the same district, creating a 22nd Senate District that heavily favors Democrats. Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Kenosha, faces no competition this fall.
The suburbs and rural areas of Racine and Kenosha counties now make up a new 21st Senate District, which heavily favors Republicans. Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, who narrowly won election in 2010, before the 21st District was reshaped, trounced his opponent in 2014 and will probably draw little if any competition in 2018.
So both incumbents win, while the constituents in both districts lose because they no longer have a choice.
It’s only more evidence that the politicians can’t be trusted to draw election maps fairly, regardless of which party is in power. Wisconsin should adopt a nonpartisan process for fair maps, similar to Iowa’s, before the 2020 census.