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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
waiting to vote in masks
The Washington Post

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.”