Why the War on Masks? Gerrymandering
Republicans legislators with safe seats needn’t worry about voter blowback.
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.
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.)
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
Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.
- A Better Wisconsin Together Applauds the Release of the People’s Maps; Encourages Legislature to Enact Them Into Law - A Better Wisconsin Together - Oct 1st, 2021
- Commission Proposes Legislative Maps Reducing GOP Advantage - Bridgit Bowden - Oct 1st, 2021
- Data Wonk: Will 10 Years of Gerrymandering End? - Bruce Thompson - Sep 29th, 2021
- GOP Legislators Push To Continue Gerrymandering - Melanie Conklin and Henry Redman - Sep 29th, 2021
- Op Ed: State Supreme Court Wrong To Take On Redistricting Case - Matt Rothschild - Sep 26th, 2021
- GOP Legislators Seek US Supreme Court Help On Redistricting - Laurel White - Sep 25th, 2021
- Republican Legislators Propose Redistricting Bill - Ruth Conniff - Sep 24th, 2021
- State Supreme Court Will Hear Redistricting Case - Laurel White - Sep 22nd, 2021
- Wisconsin Supreme Court Takes WILL Redistricting Case - Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty - Sep 22nd, 2021
- Statement on Tuesday’s Federal Judicial Redistricting Hearing - Fair Elections Project - Sep 22nd, 2021
Read more about Gerrymandering of Legislative Districts here
- Court Watch: Why Court Voided Evers Emergency Order - Gretchen Schuldt - Apr 5th, 2021
- Statement by Heartland Institute Director Jeré Fabick on WI Supreme Court Victory Against Gov. Tony Evers - Heartland Institute - Mar 31st, 2021
- Senator Agard: Statement on Supreme Court Decision - State Sen. Melissa Agard - Mar 31st, 2021
- Wisconsin’s Hyperpartisan Supreme Court is Endangering the Public - Democratic Party of Wisconsin - Mar 31st, 2021
- Wisconsin Supreme Court: Gov. Evers’ Multiple Emergency Declarations Violate Law - Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty - Mar 31st, 2021
- Rep. Hesselbein Statement on Supreme Court Ruling on Emergency Orders - State Rep. Dianne Hesselbein - Mar 31st, 2021
- Statement on Wisconsin Supreme Court Decision - State Sen. Jon Erpenbach - Mar 31st, 2021
- Gov. Evers Releases Statement Regarding Supreme Court Decision - Gov. Tony Evers - Mar 31st, 2021
- Rep. Hintz: Statement on Wisconsin Supreme Court Ruling - State Rep. Gordon Hintz - Mar 31st, 2021
- State Supreme Court Overrules Evers’ Emergency Powers - Laurel White - Mar 31st, 2021
Read more about Statewide Mask Mandate here