Democracy is hanging by a thread
Republicans and Democrats both love gerrymandering. That’s why it will take massive political pressure to change the system.
And I thought Wisconsin Republicans were the experts on gerrymandering.
Democrats in Illinois just created a state congressional map that looks like a Jackson Pollock fever dream.
In fact, it’s a nightmare for Republicans in that state and ought to be a lesson for voters everywhere.
The reality is that gerrymandering is a bipartisan disease. In 2011, Republicans in Wisconsin, like their colleagues in Illinois today, had control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office. Through gerrymandering, Republicans locked in their power for a decade.
And now, Democrats in Illinois have done the same thing.
What just happened in Illinois?
Illinois Democrats pushed through new congressional maps in late October that would eliminate two Republicanheld districts. Even though Illinois will lose a seat because its population declined, the state will likely have a congressional delegation of 14 Democrats and three Republicans — up from the current 13-5 margin.
The new maps got an “F” from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a nonpartisan group, which called them “very uncompetitive.”
One of the victims was Adam Kinzinger, one of only 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump. The new maps would have put Kinzinger in the same district as U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, who supported the former president. Kinzinger announced his retirement the day after the Illinois legislature advanced the maps.
What did Republicans do 10 years ago in Wisconsin?
In 2011, Wisconsin Republicans ensured that even in a Democratic wave election, they’d have a very good chance of holding both houses of the Legislature.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert and Daphne Chen recently examined the impact of those maps.
They wrote: Before the gerrymander, about 55 or 56 of the 99 Assembly seats were more Republican in their partisan composition than the state as a whole. In other words, in a 50-50 statewide election, you’d expect Republican voters to outnumber Democratic voters in 55 or 56 Assembly districts.
After the gerrymander, about 62 or 63 were more Republican than the state as a whole. That raised the GOP’s baked-in advantage from about 13 seats (56 to 43) to about 25 (62 to 37). And in fact, the GOP has averaged a 62-seat majority since the 2011 redistricting.
What’s likely to happen this year?
Republicans still control both houses of the Legislature, but Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, will likely veto the highly partisan maps the Republicans recently passed. Either the state or federal courts are expected to step in to settle the issue. Republicans believe they’ll get a better shake from the state Supreme Court, which leans conservative. Democrats would rather see the federal courts settle the matter.
Don’t Wisconsin Democrats generally support the idea of ‘fair maps’?
Many say they do. A largely Democratic push to pressure the Legislature has had some success. About three-quarters of Wisconsin counties have endorsed the idea of “fair maps.”
And a lawsuit arguing that Wisconsin’s 2011 maps were so unfair to Democratic voters that they were unconstitutional reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court punted, ruling in 2018 “that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”
But ... When Democrats last held complete control of the state Capitol late in the administration of former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, they didn’t advance legislation to create an independent form of redistricting.
I’m guessing Democratic leaders didn’t see the Republican wave coming, the one that inundated them in 2010, led by the Tea Party nationally and Scott Walker in Wisconsin.
They may have been gambling they could retain control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office — and do to the Republicans what the Republicans ended up doing to them.
What exactly is gerrymandering?
Every 10 years, legislative and congressional district boundaries must be redrawn to account for changes in population to ensure the constitutional mandate of one person, one vote.
Gerrymandering is when politicians deliberately draw legislative boundaries to give their party an advantage — packing the opposing party into a handful of districts or cracking districts and distributing opposing voters across a large number of districts to dilute their votes.
It’s a very old political trick, dating to the earliest days of the republic. Those who oppose reform often point to that fact. You’ll never wring politics out of an inherently political process, they say. And, they argue, it’s better to let elected representatives do the work rather than people who have no direct accountability to voters at the ballot box.
But when the work of politicians runs counter to democracy, a more democratic system is needed.
Why should we care?
In a concurring opinion in Gill v. Whitford, the Wisconsin case that reached the high court, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan put it this way: Gerrymandering produces “indifference to swing voters and their views; extreme political positioning designed to placate the party’s base and fend off primary challenges; the devaluing of negotiation and compromise; and the impossibility of reaching pragmatic, bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems.”
How to make redistricting more fair
Since maps were last redrawn, voters in six states — Colorado, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Utah and Virginia — have passed reforms.
But the Iowa system remains the model worth emulating.
In Iowa, the moment of truth came in 1980 when a Republican-controlled state government pushed through redistricting reform. Since then, the work has been done by an arm of the state legislature. The process is fast, cheap and results in more competitive elections — and sometimes the defeat of incumbents.
This year, the Iowa legislature has already approved new maps for congressional and state legislative districts, which would pit 58 lawmakers against at least one other legislator, according to the Des Moines Register. That includes 20 of Iowa’s 50 incumbent senators.
Here’s how the process works in Iowa: Iowa’s Legislative Services Agency draws the maps, which have to be as equal in population as possible, respect political boundaries by trying not to divide cities and counties, be contiguous and be reasonably compact. It is a blind process that cannot favor political parties or incumbents or be used to enhance or dilute the voting strength of minority groups.
The legislature must consider the plan promptly and can only vote up or down. If lawmakers reject the initial plan (which they did this year), they have to explain why based on the criteria for drawing districts.
The agency then submits a second plan, which the legislature also considers on an up-or-down vote. If the second plan is rejected, the agency draws up a third plan based on legislative feedback and submits it to the General Assembly.
The third map is subject to regular amendments, just like any other bill, so in theory, lawmakers could draw their own maps at that point. This year, Democrats worried that Republicans, who control state government, would take over the process and impose their will through a partisan gerrymander when they drew the third map.
It didn’t happen. In fact, since Iowa adopted redistricting reform 40 years ago, there has never been a third vote.
Why did Iowa Republicans agree to give up such a handy political tool?
The state was led at the time by Gov. Robert Ray, a moderate Republican governor with a reputation for bipartisanship. There also was resentment that the courts had stepped in to require a new set of maps a few years earlier, which resulted in a mess in the opinion of many in the majority, according to a 2013 white paper co-authored by longtime Iowa political observer Don Racheter.
And there were backbenchers in the GOP who were as concerned as some Democrats about losing their seats to gerrymandering, Racheter wrote. Finally, there was a general feeling that it was simply the “right thing to do.”
In an era of extreme political polarization, it’s unlikely the Republican majority in Wisconsin will take up redistricting reform unless compelled to do so by either the courts or intense public pressure.
It will take action by the Legislature to change the process; we don’t have the ability in Wisconsin to change law through a direct referendum.
Aren’t there bills to change how Wisconsin conducts redistricting?
Yes, and they are based on how Iowa’s process works — Senate Bill 389 and Assembly Bill 395. But these and similar bills introduced in years past have never gotten so much as a public hearing.
How would a change like that help our politics?
When a district is so gerrymandered that the outcome in a general election is a foregone conclusion, the real fight (if there is one) will be in the primary election. Primary elections tend to attract the most committed, most partisan voters — so candidates tend to play to those voters, pulling them further to the political extremes. Changing the way we draw districts to create more competitive districts, where candidates would have to appeal to all voters, would help fix that.
Does reform have support in Wisconsin?
Yes. The last time the Marquette University Law School Poll asked about redistricting reform in January 2019, it found that 72% of voters preferred redistricting be done by a nonpartisan commission. The poll found that majorities in each partisan group favored that approach, including 63% of Republicans.
But redistricting reform is only one cure for polarization
We’re divided like I’ve never seen in our country — and in our state.
We’ve self-sorted ourselves into likeminded enclaves, both physically (more Democrats in cities, more Republicans in suburbs and rural areas) and in how we get our news and information (Fox News and Breitbart vs. Slate and MSNBC).
We no longer always have a common set of facts — we don’t often talk to people with whom we disagree politically. Our political language is coarse and full of disdain, a problem that has migrated even to school board races.
During a speech at the LaFollette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last week, David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, said he’s come to believe the core problem is an “epidemic of blindness” in our society.
“Blacks feeling that their daily experience is not understood by whites. Rural people not feeling seen by coastal elites. Depressed young people not feeling seen by anyone. ...
“At the core of our political problems and our political divisions and our policy disagreements is a human problem of dehumanization,” Brooks said.
Redistricting reform won’t fix that.
But ... it is one thing we can fix
Let’s not throw up our hands and fail to fix a problem that is fixable. Redistricting reform is one way to make politics fairer — for both political parties.
David D. Haynes is editor of the Ideas Lab. Email: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidDHaynes or Facebook.