Image courtesy Wisconsin Legislative Technology Services Bureau
For Wisconsin Republicans, crafting a new electoral map in 2011 was no neutral exercise in adjusting districts to match census data. The GOP majority created new district borders to insulate their party from the popular will.
“The Republicans’ redistricting has enabled them to roll back more than a century of good progressive reforms in Wisconsin,” said Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “They have been able to eviscerate worker rights, attack the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Idea of the university dedicated to serving the entire state, weakening environmental protections, and gutting a host of other reforms.”
But the Wisconsin redistricting—described by critics as “one of the worst gerrymanders in U.S. history”—is now under the scrutiny of the Seventh District Federal Court of Appeals, whose decision on the Wisconsin electoral map is pending and likely to be handed down this summer. The Wisconsin case, seen by legal experts as the most significant redistricting case in three decades, will almost certainly be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Michael Li, senior counsel on redistricting issues for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
In the past, four hard-line conservatives on the Supreme Court blocked consideration of cases involving redistricting plans. But the Court lost a conservative leader when Antonin Scalia passed away, and Justice Anthony Kennedy has shown a strong interest in developing meaningful guidelines for redistricting.
A final ruling will have major national implications, as Republican-dominated state governments including Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas have all enacted redistricting plans similar to Wisconsin’s.
The impact of these plans has been to exaggerate the actual electoral strength of Republicans and minimize that of Democrats, distorting the outcome of elections.
In 2012, Democratic candidates for state assembly stacked up 174,000 more votes than the Republicans in Wisconsin legislative races. Yet because of how district lines were drawn, the Republicans won sixty seats and the Democrats wound up with just thirty-nine.
The pattern continued in 2014. At the top of the ticket, Republican Governor Scott Walker got a 52 percent majority, suggesting the approximate share for votes cast for assembly Republicans. But the election produced 63 seats in the Assembly for the GOP. Democrats won only 36.
These undemocratic results were the product of a sordid planning process, conducted in secret at significant taxpayer expense.
Wisconsin Republican legislators allocated more than $2 million in state taxpayer funds to redistricting, but the public, the media, and Democratic legislators were not permitted to view the process of creating new districts. The process was outsourced to the law firm of Michael, Best & Friedrich, a favorite of the Walker administration, where development of the new districts took place in secret, closed-door sessions.
Secrecy was so stringent that Republican legislators were required to sign secrecy pledges to view the plans being considered for their individual districts.
The law firm also attempted to use attorney-client privilege to hide its process for developing new voting maps. Republican attorneys were repeatedly admonished by judges for intentionally causing delays, concealing information, and violating the state’s traditions of open government. Eventually, the judges imposed $17,500 in fines.
Using redistricting to partisan advantage involves two parallel strategies: “cracking” and “packing.” In cracking, districts that lean Democratic are broken by importing just enough voters to tilt Republican. In packing, districts are drawn to create heavy concentrations of Democrats, to minimize their impact in other areas.
The result, according to William Whitford, a retired law professor who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, is that tens of thousands of Democratic voters are effectively disenfranchised. As Whitford plaintively declared, “I just want my vote to count.”
The Seventh District Court and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court may take heed of Whitford’s plea and deal a blow to the GOP’s rigged redistricting scheme. Wisconsin and other states have another option. Iowa has used a nonpartisan redistricting system for several decades.
Redistricting is just one of many ways that Republicans have sought to undermine fundamental democratic values. They are also working to disenfranchise voters through new voting requirements, aimed at groups that tend to vote Democratic: African-Americans, Latinos, the poor, and college students.
Donald Trump’s explicitly racist statements are drawing wide attention, and discomfiting his fellow Republicans. But behind the scenes, GOP schemes to prevent people of color and other likely Democratic voters from casting their ballots are a much bigger assault on civil rights and democracy itself.
Roger Bybee is a labor studies instructor, longtime progressive activist, and writer who edited the weekly Racine Labor for fourteen years.