Data Wonk

Wisconsin Ranks Among Four Least Democratic States

National ranking shows it dropped since 2011 from one of most democratic to third worst.

By - May 10th, 2023 02:43 pm
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Mariiana Tzotcheva.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Mariiana Tzotcheva.

For many years, organizations like Freedom House have published ratings of nations’ democracy and freedom. Less attention has been paid to freedom and democracy in sub-national units, such as American states.

A recent article and book by University of Washington political scientist Jake Grumbach rates the health of democracy in the 50 states. Grumbach finds that many states, including Wisconsin, have backslid in recent years.

Grumbach used 51 factors to score the states based on their administration of elections. These factors include ease of voting, whether there are barriers to voting, measures to make sure votes are accurately counted, and whether the outcome reflects the will of the voters.

Gerrymandering, in which legislative districts are deliberately designed to favor one of the major parties over the other, is a negative factor.

Other factors that contribute to reduced or negative scores include the number of felons ineligible to vote as percent of state population, the percentage of voters deterred because of disability or illness, voting wait times, and strict voter ID. Some of the factors contributing to positive scores are absentee voting, same day registration, the use of provisional ballots, requiring a postelection audit, early voting, and allowing currently incarcerated to vote.

The solid blue line in the chart below shows Grumbach’s democracy score for Wisconsin between the years 2000 and 2018. For the first decade, Wisconsin was among the highest scoring states when it came to electoral democracy. In 2011 democracy in Wisconsin took a sharp nose dive, reflected in the dashed line in the chart.

What happened? A prominent factor is redistricting following the 2010 Census. The 2010 election gave Republicans a so-called “trifecta” in which they won the governorship and both houses of the Legislature. This allowed them to design one of the most extreme examples of a gerrymander in the nation. The resulting Assembly and state Senate maps make it almost impossible for Democrats to win control of either house of the Legislature.

Wisconsin Electoral Democracy Scores

Wisconsin Electoral Democracy Scores

Although not quite the worst state—Tennessee has that distinction as shown below—Wisconsin is among the four states with the lowest 2018 scores. It also shares with North Carolina the distinction of having an especially large decline in electoral democracy.

States with Worst Democracy Scores

States with Worst Democracy Scores

In the first decade of the 21st Century, Wisconsin had one of the top scores in electoral democracy, joining Colorado and Washington. As those states show, Wisconsin’s sudden fall was not was not pre-ordained, but came as a result of big changes in state policies.

Best State Democracy Scores 2000 to 2018

Best State Democracy Scores 2000 to 2018

Traditionally, the Republican Party positioned itself as the defender of local government. But since taking power of the Legislature in 2011, Republicans seem to have completely rejected the theory that local government knows best how to address local needs. It has been replaced with the theory that state government has all wisdom. The Madison-knows-best theory is reflected in proposals to have state government specify how many police and fire fighters Milwaukee must have, to ban tax money for the Hop streetcar, limit the ability of local health departments to fight the spread of future pandemics, and further micromanage local governments.

They would even ban advisory referenda. In last April, Milwaukee County voters were asked “Should Wisconsin Statute 940.04, which bans abortion at any stage of pregnancy without exception for rape, incest, or health of the patient, be repealed to allow legal access to abortion care?” Three quarters of the voters said yes. Apparently, the legislators don’t want to know what voters are thinking.

Grumbach’s Electoral Democracy Score targets the elections part of democracy—whether the results accurately reflect voter preferences, whether it is easy to register and vote, and whether the regulations aim to discourage voting by some groups, such as those who don’t have drivers’ licenses or cannot get off work to vote.

At the same time, it leaves out other elements of liberal democracy, such as protecting civil rights and liberties. Therefore, in an appendix he offers a more encompassing score, the Electoral & Liberal Democracy Score. In Wisconsin at least, this broader score ranks it about the same as the less inclusive Electoral Democracy score.

According to a journal that James McHenry kept of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, on the last day Elizabeth Powel asked Benjamin Franklin “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

In the 2022 election for U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Mandela Barnes won 49.5% of the major party vote. Yet he won only 35 of the Wisconsin Assembly’s 99 districts–35.4%. If 1% of the voters had switched to Barnes from Johnson, Barnes would have won the U.S. Senate race. However, he would have still won only 35 Assembly districts out of 99.

Article IV Section 4 of the United States Constitution guarantees to every state a ”republican form of government.” Is a Legislature in which half the voters receive slightly more than 35% of the representation compatible with this guarantee?

Categories: Data Wonk, Politics

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