Making a Bad Thing Worse

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

October 27, 2011

Ten years ago new congressional and state legislative district lines were drawn to adjust for population changes reflected in the 2000 census. Those lines were very good for officeholders and very bad for any voter who didn’t feel well represented and longed for a fresh face.

Despite the fact approval ratings for Congress have been steadily declining and this year reached an all-time low of 12 percent, the congressional district lines drawn in 2001 made it virtually impossible for voters to dislodge an incumbent House member. The boundaries were manipulated to make districts safer for both Democratic and Republican members. There were no competitive elections in any of Wisconsin’s eight U.S. House districts in 2002, none in 2004, one in 2006, none in 2008 and three in 2010.

Public approval of the Wisconsin Legislature’s performance plunged in the aftermath of the political corruption scandal at the Capitol that erupted in 2001 before slightly recovering later in the decade. But public dissatisfaction remains high today, with 60 percent of Wisconsin residents saying they disapprove of the way the Legislature is handling its job. Yet incumbents running in the Assembly and Senate districts drawn in 2001 were re-elected 93 percent of the time over the course of the decade, winning 454 elections and losing only 39.

Considering all this, it is very difficult imagining the new political boundaries drawn this year following the 2010 census could make legislative districts any less competitive. But Republicans who control the Legislature managed to do just that. And there aren’t just a few more uncompetitive districts, there are a lot more.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign looked at the last election for the 132 state Assembly and Senate seats (which was held in 2010, except for 16 even-numbered Senate districts, which was in 2008). We looked at how votes were cast in the old districts. Then we looked at where those same voters are now under the new boundaries established this year. The results of this analysis are striking, especially for the Assembly.

The districts shown as either strongly Republican or strongly Democratic are those that were won by 20 percentage points or more (in other words, by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent or greater). Districts are said to be either leaning Republican or Democratic if the elections were decided by between 10 and 20 percentage points. Toss-up districts are those where margins of victory were within 10 points (55 percent to 45 percent or less).

Under the old map, 50 of the 99 Assembly districts were either leaning or strongly Republican. Twenty-seven were either leaning or strongly Democratic, and 21 others were toss-ups. Under the new map, Republicans added 10 more districts to their column. But they didn’t do it by reducing the number of safe Democratic districts. There were 20 strongly Democratic districts before, there are 20 now. They did it by reducing the number of toss-up districts by a third.

Yes, this is clearly a Republican gerrymander. But the biggest losers are not Democratic officeholders. The real losers are the voters. There were precious few districts in the past that produced competitive elections where voters had an authentic ability to change which party would represent them. There are significantly fewer such districts now.

Because Senate districts are larger geographically, it is more difficult to create districts that are either bright red or bright blue. But legislative Republicans still managed to pull it off. Under the old map, 10 districts were strongly Republican and nine were strongly Democratic. Under the new map, 12 districts are strongly Republican and seven are strongly Democratic. The number of leaners and toss-up districts hasn’t changed much.

The bottom line is that the job security of current officeholders from both parties has been protected. The Republicans’ grip on power has been enhanced. The ability of the people to impose their will and get the kind of representation they want has been further eroded.

Which means our democracy has been further weakened. All because of the way lines have been drawn on a map.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director
2000-2014

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