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Gerrymandering and Racial Justice in Wisconsin

Partisan maps have yielded a legislature that fails to respond to Black voters.

September 1, 2020
Wisconsin State Capitol
Justin Sullivan/Getty

In yet another pain­ful reminder of the racism entrenched in our nation’s law enforce­ment systems, on August 23, a Kenosha, Wiscon­sin, police officer shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black father, seven times from point-blank range in front of his chil­dren. The shoot­ing has sparked urgent and anguished protests, renew­ing calls for action to address police brutal­ity and racial injustice.

In response, Gov. Tony Evers called the Wiscon­sin State Legis­lature into a special session this week to take up a pack­age of police reform bills origin­ally unveiled by Evers, Lieu­ten­ant Gov. Mandela Barnes, and the Legis­lat­ive Black Caucus more than two months ago. Evers has described the legis­la­tion as a crit­ical “first step” toward equity in a state consist­ently ranked as one of the worst in the coun­try for racial dispar­it­ies in, among other areas, child poverty, educa­tional attain­ment, employ­ment, and incar­cer­a­tion. But Repub­lic­ans — with a near super­ma­jor­ity in both cham­bers of the legis­lature thanks to wildly gerry­mandered maps drawn behind closed doors with no input from Black lawmakers — have shown little urgency in advan­cing even moder­ate police account­ab­il­ity and trans­par­ency meas­ures.

Forced into session by exec­ut­ive order, both cham­bers imme­di­ately recessed on Monday. In the Assembly, only two Repub­lican lawmakers were in attend­ance — and only so that they could go through the proced­ural motions needed to go into recess. In the Senate, no Repub­lic­ans showed up, requir­ing the chief clerk to open the session. It’s a famil­iar maneuver: when Evers last called a special session, to post­pone the April primary elec­tion amid grow­ing public health concerns, the legis­lature deris­ively gaveled in and out in just 17 seconds.

When a reporter asked when citizens can expect lawmakers to debate the governor’s police reform pack­age, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos dismissively said it would not be “real­istic“ until “after the elec­tion.” Vos could speak with such bald-faced impun­ity because it would take an unpre­ced­en­ted polit­ical wave for Repub­lic­ans to lose their legis­lat­ive major­ity come Novem­ber.

Indeed, the wave elec­tion of 2018 is a power­ful lesson in just how rigged Wiscon­sin’s maps are in favor of the Repub­lic­ans who drew them. Despite winning every statewide office and a major­ity of the statewide vote that year, Demo­crats managed to win only 36 of the 99 seats in the Assembly. Repub­lic­ans won the remain­ing 63 seats with a minor­ity of the statewide vote, losing only a single seat that they had previ­ously held. Around Milwau­kee County, where nearly 70 percent of the state’s Black popu­la­tion lives, map draw­ers disreg­arded the Wiscon­sin Consti­tu­tion’s require­ment that legis­lat­ive districts be drawn to respect county lines wherever possible, crack­ing a bloc of Milwau­kee County voters across a ring of eight Assembly districts that stretch far into the predom­in­antly white, conser­vat­ive suburbs of neigh­bor­ing counties. Repub­lic­ans carried seven of these eight districts in 2018.

To be sure, gerry­man­der­ing didn’t cause the shoot­ing of Jacob Blake. But the fail­ure of the State Legis­lature to respond to issues, such as poli­cing, that dispro­por­tion­ately affect Black Wiscon­sin­ites demon­strates the real consequences of legis­lat­ive maps that prior­it­ize the interests of partisan politi­cians over those of the people.

Wiscon­sin Repub­lic­ans’ lackluster response to police brutal­ity is far from the first time that the gerry­mandered legis­lature has coldly and cynic­ally neglected the prior­it­ies and demands of Black Wiscon­sin­ites. The Covid-19 pandemic has devast­ated Black communit­ies in Wiscon­sin, espe­cially in Milwau­kee County. Black Wiscon­sin­ites make up 7 percent of the state’s popu­la­tion but account for nearly a quarter of its Covid-19 deaths. At the same time, the pandemic has only exacer­bated the stag­ger­ing economic divide between Black and white Wiscon­sin­ites. But even as federal unem­ploy­ment bene­fits have expired and the state’s unem­ploy­ment fund is quickly running out, legis­lat­ors have not provided any addi­tional relief since April 15, further fuel­ing the outrage, grief, and economic depriva­tion at the core of the months-long upris­ing against anti-Black­ness and systemic racism.

If history is any indic­a­tion, Wiscon­sin­ites likely will not see much in the way of mean­ing­ful steps on racial justice when the legis­lature recon­venes on Thursday. When maps do not repres­ent the people, all Amer­ic­ans lose out because demo­cracy loses out. But, as in so many other areas, it is Black voters who bear the most severe consequences of gerry­man­der­ing. In some cases, it is liter­ally a matter of life and death.