Op Ed

Why the War on Masks? Gerrymandering

Republicans legislators with safe seats needn’t worry about voter blowback.

By - Feb 7th, 2021 09:45 am
Mask. Pixabay License Free for commercial use No attribution required

Mask. (Pixabay License).

It didn’t have to be this way. Our state Legislature could be doing more to help Wisconsinites, but they aren’t. Why? Because too many legislative districts are drawn so that elected representatives don’t have to be responsive to their constituents.

State government is fighting itself at every turn. The Legislature not only didn’t convene — virtually or otherwise — for months on end in 2020, but spent its time and taxpayer money suing in court to block emergency measures advanced by the Gov. Tony Evers and public health officials.

Recently an NBC story pointed to the root of the Legislature’s bizarre behavior regarding the pandemic: gerrymandered 2011 maps that have entrenched Republican control of the Legislature for a decade, no matter what.  Even when Democrats win all five statewide offices on the ballot, and Democratic candidates for the Assembly win 53% of the popular vote to just 45% for Republican candidates like they did in 2018, Republicans easily retained majorities in the Legislature.

This problem is real. But it goes far beyond a political party holding on to a majority of seats with a minority of statewide votes. The problem with this sort of gerrymander is that it protects those legislators from any real accountability. They don’t have to work for their constituents. (Seriously, who else could not show up to work for hundreds of days and not worry about getting fired?) The only threat to their re-election is a (more extreme) primary challenger from their own party.

Rick Esenberg, quoted in the NBC article, blames the “political geography” of Wisconsin for the division (saying that because Democrats are concentrated in cities, this is why they can claim fewer seats). That is the same argument rejected in federal court four years ago in a case called Whitford v. Gill. In Whitford, the Legislature attempted to defend the 2011 Assembly district maps, enacted under unified Republican control. They’d been judged the fourth most heavily gerrymandered state legislative districting plan in the United States in the past 40 years.

After a week-long trial, a federal court rejected this “self-sorting of voters” argument. Instead, the three-judge panel (with two Republican appointees) found that the districts had been intentionally drawn into a partisan gerrymander. The maps artificially “packed” Democratic voters into a small number of districts while “cracking” (or diluting) them in the rest of the districts, to yield this particularly high number of Republican seats.

In other words, the court rejected the explanation Esenberg advanced, as well as any other legitimate reason for the Legislature to have drawn the districts to entrench Republican control of the Assembly. While the U.S. Supreme Court later halted the case because it found that a legal requirement called “standing” had not been proved at trial, the Court did not rule or comment on the partisan gerrymander findings made by the three-judge panel. The Supreme Court’s announcement in another case a year later that federal courts cannot provide relief for partisan gerrymanders similarly did not contradict the finding of this fact about Wisconsin’s Assembly districts and the gerrymander.

Esenberg also now asserts that there is no way to tell if the Efficiency Gap — a mathematical technique used to measure how much district maps advantage one party over others — is too high.

Wrong again. This contradicts what the federal court announced in Whitford v. Gill, where it noted a “historically” high pro-Republican Efficiency Gap: so high it would entrench a Republican majority throughout the decade-long life of those maps regardless of shifts in swing-voter preference. (You can see how Wisconsin’s Efficiency Gap, as well as other measures of partisan symmetry, stacks up against other states here.)

The vast majority of state legislative seats are “safe” under these maps because of this historically extreme gerrymander, which endures to the present. Unless and until districts are reconfigured to eliminate this baked-in advantage, Republicans face nearly no chance of losing to Democratic opponents in the majority of districts because the numbers, very intentionally, prevent it.

When there is nothing to fear but a primary challenge, it’s easy to see why Republican legislators can get away with refusing to work with a Democratic governor, even during a literal emergency. There is nothing to be gained from getting the hard work of governing done. Any hint of bipartisanship makes an elected official a potential target for a more extreme primary challenger who would pledge to “never compromise.” David Daley’s colorfully-titled 2016 book on gerrymandering covered this dynamic at the national level, citing the rise of extreme-right Republican Members of Congress, but Wisconsin shows the true depth of the effects. Republican legislators in artificially safe seats see only danger in cooperation with the governor.

You can observe a rare counter-example from the recent Senate vote to repeal Evers’ statewide mask order. Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) was one of only two Republican senators to vote against repealing the governor’s public health directive. Kooyenga is up for re-election in 2022 and holds one of the few seats arguably close enough to face a serious challenge from a Democrat. (He won his 2018 election by just over 2,000 votes). It would appear that this competitiveness was enough to cause him to break with party lines, knowing he has to win over at least some swing voters in the next election. Voters who care more about easing the pandemic than partisan purity.

When thinking about gerrymandering and redistricting, let’s not lose sight of these consequences. Over 24,000 people have been hospitalized in our state, and we’ve lost almost 6,000 of our neighbors to this disease. A less-partisan state government wouldn’t have stopped Covid-19, but it could have slowed the spread and lessened that toll.

This article is adapted by the author from a post on LawForward.org

Mel Barnes, staff counsel at Law Forward.

Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.

More about the Gerrymandering of Legislative Districts

Read more about Gerrymandering of Legislative Districts here

More about the Statewide Mask Mandate

Read more about Statewide Mask Mandate here

4 thoughts on “Op Ed: Why the War on Masks? Gerrymandering”

  1. 45 years in the City says:

    Once someone assumes one of these gerrymandered seats (usually only following death or retirement of the previous seat holder), they’ve got the job for life or as long as they want to do it.

    This is roughly equivalent to the “lifetime peerages” for the British House of Lords. Thankfully nobody in Wisconsin has yet proposed hereditary peerages, where the seat passes to the next in the family line.

  2. frank a schneiger says:

    Mel Barnes is certainly right about the impact of gerrymandering on our politics and government, except for the reality that these Republicans do, in fact, reflect the views of a big chunk of their constituents, as well as their right-wing donors. But those things don’t explain the opposition to wearing masks and its disastrous consequences for our country. For example, Gwen Moore also benefits from gerrymandering and having a safe district. You don’t see her going around without a mask. (Parenthetical note: it would be very illustrative of Mel Barnes analysis to have Moore’s and Fitzgerald’s districts reconfigured on an east-west basis, forcing candidates to compete for both urban/minority and suburban/white votes.Likely outcome: Bye Bye Moore and Fitzgerald.)

    With respect to the Republican mask response, here are three other explanations that make sense: First, blind opposition to anything proposed by Democrats and their allies, the hated “liberals”and the hated “experts.” So, if public health officials say masks are essential, Republicans are against it.

    Second, the Republican response reflects the ongoing “otherization” of our country, in which there is no time for losers and “surplus populations, all non-Republicans. Along with rampant narcissism, the resulting behaviors being “screw everyone else, I’m the real victim,” “nobody’s going to tell me what to do,” and ” I only want to pay taxes for the road that goes past my house.”

    Third, and within a context of masks, most important, there is the cult-like following of Donald Trump, and, even now, as Marjorie Taylor Greene repeatedly says, “It isTrump’s Party.” Here is a counter-factual: what if Donald Trump had come out and said that wearing masks is critical and set a model by doing so himself? Why didn’t he? In his case, weak and insecure people often need to project strength, and he decided that wearing a mask projected weakness and would make him look like a “loser.” The result: many more cases and a pandemic that will go on far longer than it should. (Trump’s attitude toward vaccines, from anti-vaccine to a champion when it was a sign of administration success, would also reveal a similar need to not be seen as a loser when he was previously against vaccines because he needed something to blame for autism.)

    Gerrymandering has produced a whole generation of mediocrities in Wisconsin, a state that used to be seen as a beacon of reason and thoughtful elected officials. It is unlikely that a right-wing judiciary will do anything substantive in this area in the near future, and it is unclear where the pathway out of our anti-democratic condition lies. Or what role Wisconsin will play in leading us out. What are the differences between Marjorie Taylor Green and Fitzgerald or Grothman? Not a lot of daylight there.

  3. GodzillakingMKE says:

    In laymen terms Republicans are Tyrants who have to keep their 30% Trump cultists appeased.

  4. Mingus says:

    With these do-nothing cult legislators continually being elected without any challenges, they can not be held accountable for the lack of real economic development in rural areas. They are opposed to wind farms thought wind farms could be a great source of income to farmers. They willingly ignore funding for local, community public schools and support the hundreds of millions of dollars for school choice. No State-wide fiber optic system. Yet rural residents continue to be happy with their marginalization.

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