Fair maps have huge public support, but GOP-led Legislature won’t budge after historic rigging in 2011.
A new documentary about the extreme partisan gerrymandering in Michigan and Wisconsin after the 2010 elections makes one request: “Slay the Dragon.”
“Slay the Dragon,” which received a wide release last month, chronicles the fights to end partisan gerrymandering — or, the practice of drawing electoral maps to give a partisan advantage — in Wisconsin and Michigan.
The dragon, of course, is the rigged electoral map that has resulted in a huge, practically invincible Republican majority in Wisconsin’s Assembly and Senate for the past decade, even though Democrats have consistently won most of the votes.
The party that controls the state government gets to draw the maps every 10 years. As the documentary recaps, Wisconsin Republicans in 2011 used political consultants armed with high-tech software to tinker with district lines to the point where the GOP will virtually always win 59 of the 99 Assembly seats, even in an election where Democrats overperform.
“What we have now is an unresponsive state Legislature because they don’t have to respond (to voter concerns),” said Carlene Bechen, fair maps organizer with Wisconsin Voices.
A 70 percent supermajority of state residents support a nonpartisan citizen redistricting commission to draw up the maps following the 2020 Census. A total of 51 counties have supported a nonpartisan panel through either County Board resolutions or referenda. But Republicans have rejected the idea as recently as this year, claiming it would be unconstitutional to allow a citizen commission to draw maps.
A challenge to the Republican maps made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court’s conservative justices ruled that fixing gerrymandering is outside of the scope of federal courts. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the hotly contested President Trump nominee who allegedly raped a high school classmate in the 1980s, was the deciding vote.
Republicans and Democrats alike have utilized the technique for much of the state and country’s history, but the current maps in Wisconsin are the most egregious ever seen in the state. They allowed former Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican majorities in the Assembly and Senate to swiftly move extreme right-wing legislation, such as the anti-union Act 10, through the state with next to no real political risk.
“Republicans did what I’m sure the Democrats would have done (had they won a majority in 2010): They drew maps to their favor,” Bechen said. “The big change was that they did it with very sophisticated software and consultants.”
Bechen said Republicans and Democrats have gone back and forth gerrymandering the state as power switched hands for about 50 years.
“1971 was the last time there was any cooperation between the chambers of state Legislature to draw maps,” she said. “…I don’t begrudge either party having representation. I begrudge either party cheating to get the power and control and representation so that they can push a one-sided agenda that is not representative of the electorate.”
“Slay the Dragon” was virtually distributed to 1,000 people last week in Wisconsin for Fair Maps Week. The week ended with a panel on Saturday featuring Michigan fair maps organizer Katie Fahey, Racine County Board Supervisor Fabi Maldonado, Lincoln County dairy farmer Hans Breitenmoser, and Bechen.
After a lengthy legal and political battle, Fahey’s initiative successfully created a citizen maps commission in Michigan by passing a constitutional amendment via a referendum on voters’ ballots in 2018. Wisconsin has had no such luck, as state law dictates that two consecutive Legislatures must vote to put amendments on ballots.
One of the common misconceptions of nonpartisan redistricting is that people think it means the process would give Democrats and Republicans a 50-50 shot at every district, Bechen said.
“That’s not what it is at all,” she said.
A true nonpartisan process, she said, would require full transparency, “competitive and compact districts,” and “respecting communities of interest,” such as counties, municipalities, or ethnic groups.
It’s unlikely Republicans like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos will willingly give up any ground when they draw the new maps next year, but Bechen said she “lives in hope.” She cited Rep. Jeff Mursau, R-Crivitz, who is among six Republicans who broke rank to back an anti-gerrymandering bill.