Despite Its Status as a Swing State, Incumbents Win 99% of the Time in Wisconsin

By Christina Lorey
February 8, 2023

Experts blame Republican gerrymandering. We explain what it is, why it’s getting worse, and how you can help fix it this spring.

Wisconsin is the purplest of states. We have a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled legislature. One Democratic senator and one Republican. Presidential elections come down to a fraction of one percentage point– mere thousands of votes.

But, despite all that, incumbent state legislators almost always win. Take the most recent election, for example: of the 86 Senate and Assembly races with an incumbent, only one lost. And in that case, Republicans drew former state Rep. Don Vruwink (D-Milton) into a different, more Republican-leaning district than the one that elected him in 2020. 

Why? Gerrymandering. 

Democracy, Defined

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing the boundaries of electoral districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair advantage or reduces the voting power of a minority group.

While both parties have historically engaged in gerrymandering across the country, Republicans tend to exploit the process of redrawing political boundaries for partisan gain more than Democrats. The boundaries Wisconsin Republicans drew in 2011 and 2021 have been labeled “very shocking” in terms of the huge partisan advantage they gave them.

Packing is one way Republicans did this– by drawing districts that consolidate the population of an entire voting bloc into the smallest number of districts possible.

For example, because Republicans “packed” Democratic voters into Madison districts, which they drew into weird, puzzle-like shapes, they could put fewer Democratic voters in other districts– all but ensuring their right-wing colleagues would win re-election again & again.

The process makes districts safe not only for incumbent Republicans, but also for incumbent Democrats (although, fewer of them.) It’s like self-created job security by legislators, for legislators.

What’s Next

The upcoming spring elections could end that. The current maps were approved by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on a partisan 4-3 vote, with the court’s right-wing majority ruling in favor of Republicans and their gerrymandering.

This spring, one conservative-held seat on that court is open. And if a liberal candidate wins, that opens the door for rulings that favor more competitive maps in the future.

DID YOU KNOW? It hasn’t always been this way. In the past, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has refused to get involved in gerrymandering. The result was more competitive maps after federal courts oversaw the drawing of their lines.

The Bottom Line

Your voice and your vote are supposed to matter. But with gerrymandered maps, they often don’t.

Wisconsin’s upcoming Feb. 21 (primary) and April 4 (general) elections are possibly the last chance you have to ensure your vote will matter in the 2024 presidential election. 
Click here to check your registration status today!

Author

  • Christina Lorey

    Christina is an Edward R. Murrow-winning journalist and former producer, reporter, and anchor for TV stations in Madison and Moline. When she’s not writing or asking questions, you can find her volunteering with Girls on the Run, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and various mental health organizations.

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