By John Dorschner
A tiny step in the biggest political battle in America happened in July in a shed-like building housing the Tap Rock Brewing Company in St. Croix Falls, Wis., population 1,943.
Co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the meeting was one of many being held in the state by the People’s Maps Commission, a Wisconsin effort to end gerrymandering and come up with fair districting maps for the next election.
My wife, Kathy Martin, and I attended to watch democracy in action. Volunteers interviewed voters to ask them what factors should be considered in creating districts for elected officials.
The meeting happened almost a month ago, but I keep thinking about it because the issue of gerrymandering keeps popping up in the news — as well it should.
At Tap Rock, I asked a fellow involved in the effort what real power the commission had to make change.
“None,” he replied. “But …”
And therein lies a tale about a battle that will take place over at least the next two years. The underlining theme is that the meeting at Tap Rock — and many like it throughout Wisconsin — will end up being examined by the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the fate of democracy in America.
It’s clear that Republicans have already succeeded in reducing the power of voters and are now passing even more drastic measures for future elections.
Just one example: In 2018, 64.5 percent of Florida voters approved a state referendum to give former felons the right to vote. The Legislature responded by passing measures putting many barriers between ex-cons and the voting booths.
Florida conservative pols didn’t care what the majority of the state’s voters want because the vast majority of the legislature are in districts created in which they’re guaranteed to have a majority that will support them no matter what.
That’s true in quite a few other states, including Wisconsin. For governor, the state’s voters elected a Democrat, Tony Evers, but 60 percent of the state’s Assembly is Republican.
Because so many Democrats choose to live in the city centers of Milwaukee and Madison, it would be difficult for Democrats to control the legislature, but in 2011, the Republican-dominated body intensified the disparity with the support of a Republican governor by creating an extreme example of “packing and cracking,” squeezing as many Democrats as possible into some districts or splitting them up in areas that were dominated by Republicans.
The Milwaukee suburbs were one example of cracking, and so is Marshfield, population 18,000, which is split into two state senate and two state assembly districts. The most absurdly shaped is Senate District 29, in which half of Marshfield is a tiny tail in the southwest corner of a serpentine district that winds around much of the north-central part of the state.
What’s so dangerous about Marshfield? I’m not sure. A major employer is the Marshfield Clinic Health System, and perhaps the GOP concern is that healthcare workers are socialists who believe that everyone should have access to care.
Marshfield was split in 2011. Based on new census data, the Republican-controlled legislature is already at work creating similar contorted maps. But this time there is a Democratic governor, and he’s countered the GOP by setting up the People’s Map Commission, so that the people can have a say in how districts are structured. The people of Marshfield, for example, may decide that they have unified interests and should be represented by one person in the Assembly so they can have a unified voice about their concerns.
The governor plans to reject the legislature’s map and offer instead the results of the commission, as the voice of what the people want. The legislature will reject the commission, and the matter will be sent off to the courts.
Why is that crucial? In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in Rucho v. Common Cause that it wouldn’t get involved in states’ district mapping: The states could gerrymander as they saw fit. One of the states in that ruling was North Carolina, where Republican congressional candidates got only 50 percent of the votes statewide in 2018 but won 10 of the 13 district races.
The Evers strategy in Wisconsin is that, since the state can’t decide between the Republican plans and the Democratic People’s Map, the courts will be forced to enter the fray.
At stake could be control of the next U.S. House of Representatives. A story on TheHill.com says that studies show that new gerrymandering by just four GOP-controlled states — Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Texas — “would be enough for Republicans to retake the House in 2022.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. Some 20 states have established neutral methods for mapping districts. In Iowa, Republicans decided 40 years ago decided to let career government employees design maps based on specific measurements that did not include voting data.
Iowa continues to be controlled by Republicans — but in a fair system. That’s what’s needed everywhere: Diminishing the will of the majority of voters is a recipe for disaster, chaos and perhaps ultimately rebellion.