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Gerrymandering Meets the Coronavirus in Wisconsin

Partisan voting district lines were an obstacle to delaying the election, putting voters’ health at risk.

April 8, 2020

Gerry­man­der­ing has real-world policy consequences, but rarely have those been as fright­en­ingly illus­trated than with what has played out in Wiscon­sin the past several days.

With the coronavirus ravaging the state, Wiscon­sin Gov. Tony Evers asked lawmakers last Friday to switch the state’s April elec­tions to an all-mail elec­tion, warn­ing that in-person voting in the middle of a pandemic would be “a very unne­ces­sary public health risk.” Others called for post­pone­ment of the elec­tion from April to June, and elec­tion offi­cials around the state repor­ted diffi­culties recruit­ing enough poll work­ers to safely run an elec­tion.

But Wiscon­sin Repub­lic­ans were eager for a hotly contested state Supreme Court elec­tion to take place. And with a near super­ma­jor­ity in the state assembly thanks to one of the most aggress­ive gerry­manders in U.S. history, they ignored calls to post­pone the elec­tions, dismissively conven­ing and then adjourn­ing the special legis­lat­ive session called by the governor in just 17 seconds.

The result on Tues­day were long lines in Milwau­kee, where only five polling places in the whole city were open. Repub­lic­ans could act brazenly without fear of elect­oral blow­back because gerry­mandered maps make it virtu­ally impossible for them to ever lose their legis­lat­ive major­ity. Wiscon­sin’s maps were craf­ted with such micro-preci­sion that even if Demo­crats managed to win a histor­ic­ally high 54 percent of the two-party vote – a level they’ve reached only once in the last 20 years — Repub­lic­ans would still end up with a solid nine-seat major­ity in the state assembly.

In fact, Wiscon­sin’s maps are so gerry­mandered that Repub­lic­ans can win close to a super­ma­jor­ity of house seats even with a minor­ity of the vote. Analyses of the maps in the lawsuit chal­len­ging the maps showed that Repub­lic­ans are a lock to win 60 percent of state­house seats even if they win just 48 percent of the vote. This is precisely what happened in 2018, when Demo­crats won a major­ity of the statewide vote and swept statewide offices, but Repub­lic­ans saw the size of their state-house deleg­a­tion reduced by only a single seat, going from 64 of 99 seats to 63 seats.

The current maps are far differ­ent than maps of the prior decade, which were drawn by a court in 2001 after legis­lat­ive dead­lock. Those maps were much more elect­or­ally respons­ive, allow­ing control of the state assembly to flip between the parties several times over the course of the decade as the mood of voters shif­ted — exactly what one would expect in one of the coun­try’s quint­es­sen­tial swing states.

In 2016, a panel of three federal judges struck down Wiscon­sin’s current state assembly maps as an uncon­sti­tu­tional partisan gerry­mander, find­ing that Repub­lic­ans  had drawn maps with the intent “to secure the Repub­lican Party’s control of the state legis­lature for the [decade].” But the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court. Then, while the case was on the eve of a retrial, the Supreme Court ruled in a case from North Caro­lina, Rucho v. Common Cause, that partisan gerry­man­der­ing claims could not be considered by federal courts.

With federal courts out of the picture, Wiscon­sin’s gerry­mandered status quo was locked in.

To be sure, gerry­man­der­ing isn’t the only reason Wiscon­sin ended up in the mess that it has. This decade, Wiscon­sin has been home to a string of attacks on demo­cracy, from discrim­in­at­ory voter ID laws to efforts to ques­tion­able purges of voter rolls. And, even if Demo­crats had held the state assembly, an effort to hold an all-mail elec­tion might have been blocked by the Repub­lican-controlled state senate. But the decision to do so would have carried far greater polit­ical risk.

By baking elect­oral results into the DNA of districts, gerry­man­der­ing has taken away an import­ant check and balance from Wiscon­sin voters. One consequence is an elec­tion on Tues­day that Wiscon­sin’s largest paper has called “the most undemo­cratic in the state’s history.”