It is a tale of powerlessness.
It is a lament on how elites in Wisconsin’s two biggest cities, Madison and Milwaukee, control the state, grabbing the largest share of state resources while leaving smaller Wisconsin communities with only crumbs.
The story never leaves us. It is part of our outlook, a way we see the world.
But what happens when that story stops being true?
That is the challenge of a Nov. 21 Western Wisconsin federal appeals court decision in Whitford v. Gill. Here, the appeals panel ruled unconstitutional Act 43, a 2011 state assembly and senate redistricting scheme.
The court found that not only did the state legislature, aided by two college professors, devise new districts that would theoretically maintain a Republican assembly majority but that, in actual fact, the scheme significantly increased Republican assembly majorities following the 2012 and 2014 elections.
The redistricting plan successfully drained political power away from the state’s Democratic strongholds in Madison and Milwaukee, as well as the college cities of Eau Claire, Stevens Point and LaCrosse. Republican strongholds in suburban Milwaukee and the Fox Valley gained power, but so did “up north” rural Wisconsin.
The technique used by the professors is well known. It goes by the slang terms of “cracking” and “packing.” The pair persuaded 20 assembly Republicans in “safe” districts to share voters with more marginal districts (“cracking”) while they drained away Democratic voters from contested districts into Democratic safe districts (“packing”). The Republican-leaning voters were thus used to “efficiently” turn marginal Republican districts into safe districts while Democratic voters were “wasted” into already safe Democratic districts.
The final product was called The Team Map. Under a computer simulation, the map predicted Democrats would need to win 54% of an assembly vote statewide in order to seat a majority.
The plan worked better than anyone ever imagined. In 2012, the Democrats received a slim statewide majority of votes for assembly, 51.4%. Democrats, however, only earned 39 out of 99 assembly seats. By contrast, Republicans in 2014 won a near equal majority, 52% of assembly votes, but captured 63 seats. This is a 24 seat disparity.
The Team Map gave Republicans a 10-seat advantage beyond what had been predicted.
The appeals court said Act 43 virtually guarantees Republican control over the legislature until the next federal census in 2020. “The plaintiffs have established that as a result of the statewide partisan gerrymandering, Democrats do not have the same opportunity provided to Republicans to elect representatives of their choice to the assembly,” penned the court. “As a result, the electoral influence of plaintiffs and other Democratic voters statewide has been unfairly and disproportionately reduced.”
It will be up to the U.S. Supreme Court to rule whether Democrats in Wisconsin, perhaps like racial minority groups in Southern states, deserve the same Equal Protection rights when it comes to redistricting. The justices have never addressed this vital issue. All eyes in the nation will be on the Court.
I am interested, though, in how the court’s ruling rural changes our political story, if it does so at all.
I believe we have been forgotten by government, left behind. I believe power lies in the state’s big cities. It is they, I think, who have the votes and the clout.
Whitford v. Gill shreds this tale of woe. It shows that Republicans, including those who represent the rural north, not only control the statehouse but have a virtual lock on power. Even a majority vote of Democrats statewide cannot dislodge the Republican juggernaut.
The power of Republicans is beyond awesome. It is unconstitutional.
What does this mean? It means, at minimum, that pothole in front of our house is not the work of a distant Other. It’s our pothole. We can blame others for our troubles, of course. But that’s an old story. The new reality is we, as rural and central Wisconsin voters, are in charge.
Peter Weinschenk is editor of the Record Review newspaper, serving Marathon, Athens, Edgar and Stratford, where this column also appears.