New legislative maps would mean more competitive elections in the Assembly and Senate in 2024. That's a good thing.
We took a deep dive into new maps submissions to see how many more closely contested elections there would project to be under new maps. Spoiler: It's a lot.
The Recombobulation Area is a ten-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written, edited and published by longtime Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Competition is good. Get everybody on a level playing field, and whether it's sports or politics, a healthy competition can bring out our best.
But for more than a decade, we haven’t had a level playing field in Wisconsin’s state legislature. Our maps have been deeply gerrymandered by a Republican majority, tilting the playing field to their side to such a degree that in this 50-50 state, it’s been virtually impossible for Democrats to win a simple majority. With an entrenched majority like that, competition can be hard to come by — and that’s a problem.
But now, we’re on track for that playing field to (finally!) be leveled out, after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the state’s legislative maps as unconstitutional late last year.
That ruling will mean many things for the future of the state, as having these maps for 12+ years has warped Wisconsin politics in a myriad of ways. But one thing that certainly projects to change under new maps is more competition in races for the Assembly and Senate.
As our longtime readers know, The Recombobulation Area is the only publication crazy enough to preview every race on the ballot in the Wisconsin State Legislature. In 2022, this was one of our most-read articles of the year, and the series earned us a Milwaukee Press Club award for “Best Public Service Story or Series.”
While we were able to shine a light on many key issues in the legislature through that preview series, among the most obvious problems it revealed was just how few races projected to be truly competitive. The lines were drawn to pack Democratic votes into fewer districts with overwhelming margins, and crack many otherwise swing regions into districts with comfortable, but not nearly as overwhelming, Republican majorities.
In our preview of the 99-seat Wisconsin State Assembly, the total number of seats we characterized as “competitive” was only…10. Just 10 out of 99 seats projected to be competitive.
And when you look at the results, it was really fewer than 10 that were all that close. Only four races resulted in a margin of less than 5%, and just four more came in between a 5% and 10% margin. There were a couple races that were more competitive, with winners from both parties overperforming projections (Democrat Katrina Shankland winning by a 14-point margin; Republican Todd Novak winning by a 12-point margin), but most of these elections were not close, and were more or less predetermined. Part of that is due to the simple nature of how certain areas of the state tend to vote, but the maps factor heavily into the overall picture.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has repeatedly attributed his party’s strong performance in legislative elections to the caliber of candidates running in those races, but the changes in the maps make it clear that competitiveness is being drawn out of most of these races, rendering that point irrelevant. Ninety-one Assembly races were decided by at least a double-digit margin of victory, and 82 races by a margin of more than 15%.
Under the vast majority of the new maps submitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court earlier this month, the number of elections that project to be more competitive would increase significantly.
Using data provided to us by John D. Johnson, research fellow at the Marquette University Lubar Center, we’ve examined the six maps being considered by the court to determine how many districts project to be competitive.
(If you want to skip past some of the methodology and technical mumbo jumbo that we’ve used to examine this, scroll right past to the next break.)
To do this, we’ve used data from map submissions from Johnson, cross-referenced with maps that have been uploaded to Dave’s Redistricting App (DRA). We used two datasets to determine the partisan lean of each district: 1) A composite of election outcomes from the 2016 presidential, 2020 presidential, 2018 Senate, 2022 Senate, 2022 gubernatorial, and 2022 attorney general races (a typical dataset used on DRA), and 2) The 2022 Wisconsin Treasurer election.
We used the Treasurer election essentially as the best available stand-in for a “generic ballot” in the midterm election because the 1.5% Republican margin closely mirrors the statewide lean in state legislative races, and it was the only statewide race in 2022 with no incumbent on the ballot (which we know can be a powerful factor in Wisconsin elections — see: Johnson, Ron; Evers, Tony).
From there, we took a look at each map under both of those datasets to determine how many races had a partisan lean margin of a) less than 5%, b) 5% to 10%, and c) 10% to 15%, as well as the sum total of how many “total” competitive districts there were with margins under 15%.
To analyze this, we looked at the six active maps being considered by the Wisconsin Supreme Court-appointed consultants. Yes, there were originally seven, but one map — the “Petering” map, drawn by Dr. Matthew Petering of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee using his software called “FastMap” — was rejected by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Jan. 12 because Dr. Petering was not among the original parties to the case.
(OK, got all that? Sorry to get so bogged down in the details.)
(OK, we’re not sorry; we are who we are.)
Back to the column…
Upon examining all of this information, what this data revealed was clear: New maps submissions would create far more competitive elections than maps that were just thrown out. Almost all of the maps project to have more closely contested elections than the maps that were just used for the 2022 election. Instead of just a scant few close races, we could have potentially dozens of competitive elections.
That’s a huge difference from where we’ve been. This has the potential to create a situation where legislators are actually competing for people’s votes and not just taking their wins for granted. A situation where they might actually have to show up to earn votes, and adopt positions held by the majority of their constituents.
What a concept, right? These might seem like basic attributes of how a legislature should operate, but such things have eluded the state in many ways for more than a decade as the political process in Wisconsin has become prisoner to The Gerrymander.
The map that projects to have the fewest competitive elections is, not surprisingly, the map from legislative Republicans. This map has been the clear outlier among all of these new maps submissions. It is the map with the greatest partisan imbalance, the most municipal splits, the most county splits, and the most ward splits (and in most cases, it is not even close to any of the other submissions), per Johnson’s analysis. Republicans just kind of didn’t do the assignment put forth by the Wisconsin Supreme Court — which called for submissions to consider “partisan impact” and reject “least change” — and more or less just submitted the same gerrymandered map, only fixed for contiguity.
Discussion of new maps begins at the 37:30 mark of the podcast for this show, available here.
Looking at Assembly elections in the 2022 Treasurer election dataset, the legislative Republican map — a 64-35 GOP advantage in total — would have just six districts with margins of victory projecting to be under 5%. Conversely, maps submitted by both the Wright petitioners and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty would each project to have 15 races with sub-5% margins.
Overall, the maps from legislative Republicans would have just 24 districts with projected margins of victory below 15%, the fewest of any by a considerable degree. Wright Petitioners would have the most, with 39 districts with margins projected below 15%.
Maps from Gov. Evers and Clarke petitioners (i.e. Law Forward, the group that sued to challenge the maps), would each have 15 districts with a projected margin of victory between 5% and 10%.
The composite dataset for the Assembly would project to be more even among the six maps, but there, more races would land in the 10% to 15% margins.
Likewise in the State Senate. In the Treasurer dataset, legislative Republicans would earn a two-thirds supermajority (which they currently have), and just four of the 33 districts would project to have a partisan lean of less than 5%, with zero in the 5% to 10% category. Every other map would have more than double the number of districts with margins projected to be under 10%.
The composite dataset again shows similar totals for the overall number of competitive districts, with most maps showing more districts in the 10% to 15% category.
The bottom line here is this: Any of these new map submissions — with one obvious exception — would bring greater competition to the Wisconsin State Legislature. That might just be the reset this chamber needs in the coming election, to turn the page on a fractured, deeply polarizing era under entrenched Republican control. We might have a scenario where, instead of candidates retreating to the furthest corners of the ideological spectrum to fend off a primary challenge, we’d have candidates instead being pulled toward the direction of consensus, supporting policies where the majority of Wisconsinites agree.
On issue after issue, state Republicans have blocked, obstructed or rejected policies supported by a majority of Wisconsinites, from abortion rights to Medicaid expansion to marijuana legalization to gun violence prevention laws to lead pipe replacement to paid family leave. Fostering an environment with greater competition will put to the test Vos’ claim that’s it’s candidate quality, not deeply gerrymandered maps, that have given Republicans their outsized majorities in the state legislature.
We do not yet know which, if any, of these map submissions will be selected by the two court-appointed consultants who will be issuing a report on the matter on Feb. 1. It’s possible that, if none of the submissions meet the court’s criteria for new maps, the consultants could draw their own.
But we’re already headed in a healthier direction. With maps set to be in place for the 2024 election — if deadlines are met by March 15, and everything is still on track for that to be the case — we could be looking at the most competitive state legislative election in a generation in this state. And a little competition could be a very, very good thing for the Wisconsin State Legislature.
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Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
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