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Zero People Spoke in Support of Republican-Proposed Maps at a 9-Hour Public Hearing. Wisconsin is Fed Up with Extreme Gerrymandering in the State Legislature.
Plus: We break down how these new proposed maps are somehow even worse than current maps -- the ones that earned Wisconsin the unenviable designation of being a worst-in-the-nation “democracy desert.”
The biggest news story in Wisconsin this week was that a public hearing was held to discuss new maps for the next decade, and in roughly nine hours of public testimony, not one individual voiced support for those maps. Not one.
This state has absolutely had it with the uneven playing field.
Those new maps were introduced by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LaMahieu. These new maps are similar to the maps from the last decade, which have been regarded by many as the worst gerrymander of any state legislature in the country.
Except they go even further. In current maps, Joe Biden won 37 of 99 Assembly districts; in the new proposed map, that number drops down to 35, putting a veto-proof majority in play for the Republicans.
It’s shocking, really. After a decade of warranted and constant criticism of these deeply unfair maps, Republicans like Vos didn’t course-correct and look to meet in the middle and draw a map that the Democratic governor might sign, they instead pushed the gerrymander to an even greater extreme. These current maps are ones that a Harvard University study said qualified Wisconsin as a “democracy desert,” ranking them the nation’s worst, putting the state’s quality of elections on par with the nations of Jordan, Bahrain and the Congo.
The new ones being proposed are even worse.
Several swing districts, many of which are in the Milwaukee suburbs, would be targeted by these new maps. One district in particular that would see a significant shift is the 13th, which is currently held by Sara Rodriguez, one of only three Democrats to have flipped an Assembly seat since current maps went into effect. Under new maps, the district would go from one Joe Biden won by 9% to one Donald Trump won by 6%.
At the state capitol on Thursday, Oct. 28, hundreds filled the chamber to testify in the only public hearing currently scheduled on the Republican-proposed maps that will set the foundation for electing 99 Assembly representatives and 33 state senators for the next decade.
Key testimony came from Sachin Chheda, chair of the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, who broke down in great detail just how problematic these maps have been for Wisconsin, tilting the balance of power so far toward the majority party that it would be impossible for Democrats to win, making Republicans so unaccountable to the public that they don’t even have to debate issues anymore, they just gavel-in and gavel-out on topics they don’t care to debate.
Here’s how his testimony closed:
If I throw the ball and every time I throw it to my own kid so he can score those points in 500, that wouldn't be right. What you're doing isn’t right. It’s immoral. It’s unethical. It’s anti-American. And the people don’t stand for it.
The only way that you’re going to get this through isn’t because the people support it, it’s because you leveraged power in 2011 when you had the trifecta, (and) you slammed through maps that are deeply unfair.
And the last word that I’m going to use is it’s cowardly. Because I think you can gain the majority, Republicans, of the people of Wisconsin. Tommy Thompson did, and you did in 2010. And Scott Walker did. I think you can earn the support, fairly, of the people of Wisconsin. And you’ll do it probably even more than 50% of the time.
But you won't do it every time. And you didn’t do it every time in the last 10 years. And if you tell yourself you did, you’re lying to yourself. And that’s why there’s so many people here saying, “enough is enough.”
We must reject SB621 and move to a map that reflects the competitive nature and the will of the voters in Wisconsin.
Chheda was the first to testify over the course of the 10-hour hearing. And of the more than 150 people to testify, not one member of the public spoke in favor of the Republican-proposed maps.
This is stunning. Not one person was willing to come forward and defend what is clearly indefensible.
Not even Vos was really able to defend it, offering disrespectful, disingenuous and duplicitous responses to questions from Democrats on the Committee on Government Operations and State Affairs.
At one point, in response to questioning from State Senator Kelda Roys, Vos just came out and admitted that partisan advantage had indeed been a consideration in drawing maps.
Roys: So just to be clear, Rep. Vos, partisan advantage is not an intent of these maps?
Vos: It's clearly a constitutional allowance. The Supreme Court, as you know, said there is no problem; there is no constitutional prohibition on that criteria. So yes, was partisanship considered as a consideration of the map? Yes. There are certain times that partisanship was.
Case closed! These maps are unfair.
Let’s take a look at a few ways to see just how unfair these maps are.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which does nonpartisan analysis of proposed maps, gives the GOP-proposed maps for Wisconsin an “F,” both in the Assembly and the Senate, showing significant advantages for Republicans in each chamber.
Statewide elections in Wisconsin are regularly decided by razor-thin margins — Biden won in 2020 by 0.63%, Tony Evers won in 2018 by 1.1%, Trump won in 2016 by 0.77%, etc. — but it’s important to acknowledge that even a 50-50 map in this, perhaps the most evenly-divided state in the nation, Republicans have a bit of a built-in geographical advantage in the legislature.
The population in the state is sorted as such to where you have several Milwaukee and Madison districts that are more overwhelmingly Democratic than their rural and suburban counterparts are as overwhelmingly Republican. For example, the most heavily Democratic Assembly districts (10th, Bowen; 16th, Haywood) went +81 for Biden, and the most heavily Republican district (59th, Ramthun) was +46 for Trump.
“There was analysis done on the geographic distribution of voters in Wisconsin,” said Chheda in his testimony on Thursday. “And I will concede that Republicans have a slight advantage in the geographic distribution in Wisconsin. It’s true. There’s a natural gerrymander in favor of Republicans. That advantage is about 2%. So when you have an efficiency gap in a map that’s been proposed in SB621 of 10% to 16%, you have five to eight times the bias in favor of Republicans in the map. These are facts.”
The results of this, he added, is that when Democrats won huge majorities in 2012 and 2018, they did not see significant increases in representation in the legislature.
Now famously, in the wave election in the 2018 midterms, where Democrats in Wisconsin won statewide races for senator, governor, attorney general and state treasurer, Democrats won 53% of all votes cast for candidates in the State Assembly, but won just 36% of the seats, flipping just one (14th, Vining).
When you get down to a district-by-district granular level, you can see how the new map is even worse than that egregious gerrymander from the past decade. It would not just be Sara Rodriguez who would be feeling the effects of these new GOP-proposed maps. The new battleground of suburban Milwaukee, which is shifting to the left like many suburban areas across the country, is particularly targeted by the Vos/LaMahieu map.
Taking a look at the analysis of these shifts from John D. Johnson of Marquette University, you see that four Assembly Republicans would benefit from double-digit shifts to the right, and another four would see their districts move more than 5% to the right (based on 2020 presidential election results).
Here are who those representatives are, where they’re from, and the margin of shift they’d see under new maps (B = Biden, T = Trump):
Daniel Knodl (Germantown) +4B -> +16T
Cory Horlacher (Mukwonago) +22T -> +38T
Shannon Zimmerman (River Falls) +3T -> +16T
Joe Sanfelippo (New Berlin) +1T -> +14T
Ken Skowronski (Franklin) +2T -> +10T
Mike Kuglitsch (New Berlin) +7T -> +14T*
Janel Brandtjen (Menomonee Falls) +19T -> +25T
Jon Macco (Ledgeview) +2T -> +8T
Clearly, these new maps are looking to protect Republican candidates in the Milwaukee suburbs, even those who are currently quite safe like Horlacher and Brandtjen. Toss-up districts for Knodl, Sanfelippo and Skowronski are shifted into much safer territory for Republicans. Zimmerman’s district is on the Minnesota border close to the Twin Cities, and Macco’s is in Brown County close to Green Bay, both of which are close now and are expected to be suburban swing regions into the 2020s.
Under current maps, the only three Democrats to have flipped districts did so in the Milwaukee suburbs, and these shameless gerrymanders go even further to protect potentially-vulnerable Republicans in the metro area.
On the other side of the aisle, just three Democrats would see comparably significant shifts to the left in their districts. And those decisions, too, strategically benefit Republicans.
Those three Democrats:
Deb Andraca (Whitefish Bay) +14B -> +27B
Dianne Hesselbein (Middleton) +37B -> +47B
Robyn Vining (Wauwatosa) +15B -> +23B
One of the surprising results from the new maps was that Dane County, despite being home to the largest population increases in the state over the past decade, did not gain a new Assembly district in the Republican proposal. Instead, some of those new likely Democratic-voting residents are drawn into Hesselbein’s already-safe district.
For Andraca and Vining, their districts shift from being moderately Democratic to more heavily Democratic, and that comes at the expense of other competitive districts — like the one held by Rodriguez.
Additionally, those districts become part of State Senate districts that would become less competitive. JR Ross of WisPolitics notes that Alberta Darling of River Hills and Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield (up for election in 2022) would each represent districts that would see shifts to the right.
These maps are obviously, blatantly, offensively unfair, and are bound to get even worse over the course of the decade.
Yet despite everything, legislative Republicans are likely to pass these maps. This is what we’ve come to expect from Vos and this group of Wisconsin Republicans. They don’t listen to the public. Because of these maps, they don’t have to.
This is the basis upon which legislative Republicans can ignore the will of the public on so many issues. This is why nothing gets done in this state on health care, child care, gun violence prevention, lead pipe replacement, marijuana legalization, meaningful law enforcement reform, or tackling the state’s startling racial inequality. It’s why these same legislators can take a nearly 300-day break during a raging pandemic and face little consequences. There is no accountability for these elected officials because they’ve removed the element of the process that makes them accountable: Competition.
All the work done over the past decade to voice support for fair maps, all the resolutions passed in counties and municipalities across the state, all of the public polling that says vast majorities of Wisconsinites want fair maps, and all the efforts toward nonpartisan redistricting, the 10 hours of testimony on Thursday, it’s all going to be ignored by the Republican majority when they pass these maps.
Gov. Tony Evers will definitely veto these maps, and the Republican majority is not yet veto-proof. This is headed to court. These maps passing the Wisconsin State Legislature is not the end result of this process.
But the simple fact that Wisconsin Republicans can so brazenly ignore the public in this process gets to the core of how anti-democratic this group of Republicans has been emboldened to become under a decade of entrenched legislative power. They are completely insulated from the people of Wisconsin. Politics in Wisconsin is broken, Republicans are the ones who’ve done the breaking, and this is how they’ve done it.
Robin Vos and the party he leads in Wisconsin are beyond pathetic. They are cowards. They are refusing to play a fair game, and Wisconsin has had enough.
*This shift is because Kuglitsch would have resided in a district other than the 84th. The 84th became a new district, a slight Republican-leaning district, for the 2022 midterm, a race won by Bob Donovan by 2%.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.