Wisconsin Examiner
Op Ed

Democrats Optimistic About New Voting Maps

'This is a sea change in Wisconsin politics.'

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Feb 27th, 2024 11:38 am
Great Seal of the State of Wisconsin. Stained glass window in the City Council chamber, Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by James Steakley, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Great Seal of the State of Wisconsin. Stained glass window in the City Council chamber, Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by James Steakley, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Last week’s sudden resolution of more than a decade of struggle for fair voting maps in Wisconsin was stunning.

Ever since Republicans took control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office in 2010, and then redrew the maps in a secret, backroom process that locked in the worst partisan gerrymander in the country, citizens have been struggling to claw back a more even political playing field. Fair maps advocates waged a yearslong county-by-county campaign, passing resolutions in 56 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties — three quarters of them in Republican-leaning areas — calling for fair maps and a nonpartisan redistricting process.

Meanwhile, the gerrymandered majority in the Wisconsin Legislature ran up legal bills costing taxpayers more than $4 million defending their unfair maps all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — which ultimately decided that federal courts have no role to play in partisan gerrymandering cases.

The big breakthrough came when voters elected Janet Protasiewicz to the Wisconsin Supreme Court by a hefty margin. Protasiewicz, who described the gerrymandered maps as “rigged” during her campaign, changed the ideological balance of the Court. The first case the Court accepted after she was seated was a gerrymandering challenge.

The Court was poised to choose a new map for Wisconsin when legislative leaders, seeing the writing on the wall, opted to pass the maps drawn up and submitted to the Court by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, which were slightly more favorable to the GOP than the other options.

After threatening to impeach Protasiewicz if she dared to participate in the gerrymandering case, Republican legislators gave up and imposed new, fair maps on themselves.

It was such a sudden reversal, Democrats in the Legislature couldn’t believe it. All but two of them voted against Evers’ maps, suspecting some sort of trick by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. They were sure Republicans would find a way to undermine the maps by tying them up in more legal challenges.

But the legal experts I spoke with overwhelmingly agreed that maps passed the regular way, through a bipartisan process, are more likely to withstand a legal challenge than a map imposed by the state Supreme Court.

So here we are, suddenly confronting a fair, democratic election.

Last week, a few days after Evers signed the maps, the Assembly wrapped up its biennial floor session and legislators headed home to sort out how they will run in their new districts, where many now face head-to-head contests against other incumbents. Some have pledged to move so they can stay in districts that no longer include their homes.

For Democrats, who have been outnumbered 64-35 in the Assembly and 22-10 in the Senate, the new maps present a huge opportunity.

“This is a sea change moment in Wisconsin politics,” Ben Wikler, chair of the state Democratic Party, said in a phone interview Thursday. “We’ve been living in something less than a democracy for the last 13 years. And now we have a set of state legislative maps that mean that if one party does well in an election, they win the majority. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t be remarkable. But in this day and age, it is. It is a spectacular, spectacular shift for the better.”

The city of Sheboygan is “a beautiful example” of the door that is opening for Democrats with new maps, Wikler says.

Last year a New Yorker story by Dan Kaufman detailed how Republicans split the city of Sheboygan in half, ensuring that, despite electing progressive city officials, local residents, separated from each other and pushed into districts that included surrounding rural areas, could never elect a Democrat to the state Legislature. All that changed last week when Evers signed the new maps.

The same is true in the city of Wausau, in central Wisconsin, and up north, where large clusters of Democrats have been split up and combined with red districts to dilute their voting power.

“You can see in the northern rim of Wisconsin, there’s a ton of Democrats who live up there and the Republican gerrymander took away their representation,” says Wikler. “But that’s about to change.” The same is true, he says, looking at De Pere and Ashwaubenon in northeast Wisconsin and at Hudson and River Falls in the western part of the state, as well as the Driftless Area.

Contemplating all those new districts, Wikler, Democratic legislative leaders and their allies are working on “a broad collaborative effort that is coming together now,” to recruit and support candidates, he says.

“The goal is to fill the ballot, make sure that there’s a candidate in every district,” says Wikler.

The state Supreme Court has not yet said whether it will take up a challenge to Wisconsin’s Congressional district maps in a lawsuit that claims those maps are also unfairly drawn to favor Republicans.

But even under the current maps there are two seats that could flip. There is a competitive Democratic primary in the 3rd Congressional District to challenge Republican Derrick Van Orden, who holds the seat recently vacated after Democrat Ron Kind retired in 2022. In the 1st Congressional District, a swing district that includes blue areas of Kenosha and Racine counties, Republican Bryan Steil took over from former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. But the district became slightly more Democratic in 2022. “I anticipate we’ll have great candidates — an expanded array of candidates — in the 1st,” Wikler says.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has pledged to spend money in Wisconsin’s two swing Congressional districts in 2024, in its quest to elect a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

And in the 8th District, where Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher recently announced he will step down, the open seat could present an opportunity for Democrats who, as Wikler puts it, “are on offense this year.”

New maps could create what Wikler describes as a “reverse coattails” effect.

In a presidential election year, down-ballot candidates often benefit from increased turnout, riding the coattails of the better known and better funded candidates at the top of the ticket.

But there are also a lot of people who care deeply about local issues, Wikler says, and who have felt thwarted in their efforts to make change for almost a decade and a half because of gerrymandering.

“At this moment, when we have new candidates with a new shot at not only winning their seats, but actually tapping the majority and passing their ideas into law, that can drive tons of folks to cast ballots,” Wikler says, “because they care about the funding of their local school or the forever chemicals in their local lake or the huge range of different issues that drive local engagement and local politics.”

“For every new, energizing state legislator candidate, we could see hundreds of voters who turn out for Tammy Baldwin and Joe Biden as well,” he predicts.

In this way, new voting maps in closely divided Wisconsin, where Donald Trump and Joe Biden each won the state by about 20,000 votes, could have a huge impact on the future of the entire country.

“There will be some voters this fall in Wisconsin who have a chance to cast a single ballot that flips a state Assembly seat, a state Senate seat, a congressional seat, reelects a senator and reelects a president,” says Wikler. “Those are some of the most powerful ballots that anyone has had in the history of American democracy.”

A lot is riding on the newly empowered voters of Wisconsin.

Ruth Conniff, Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner.

New voting maps propel a surge of optimism for Wisconsin Democrats was originally published by Wisconsin Examiner.

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