Discover more from View From A Distance
If the System is Rigged, It is Not Our Fault We Are Losing
The story we as Democrats in Wisconsin have been telling ourselves about why we don’t control the legislature has gone national, echoed by a columnist in the New York Times.
“For more than a decade, dating back to the Republican triumph in the 2010 midterm elections, Wisconsin Republicans have held their State Legislature in an iron lock, forged by a gerrymander so stark that nothing short of a supermajority of the voting public could break it.”
The effect of the gerrymandering is illustrated in the story by the difference between Democratic wins at the state level and losses in legislative races.
“In 2012, the first year the maps were in effect, Republicans won 46 percent of the statewide vote but 60 percent of the seats in the State Assembly … In 2018, this gerrymander proved strong enough to allow Wisconsin Republicans to win a supermajority of seats in the Assembly despite losing the vote for every statewide office and the statewide legislative vote by 8 percentage points.”
“No matter how much Wisconsin voters might want to elect a Democratic Legislature, the Republican gerrymander won’t allow them to.”
Sounds like the Republicans have done it to us, rigged the system, shut us out and there is nothing we can do about it – except perhaps ask a friendly court to throw the gerrymander out.
It is a story we respond to. It appeals to our sense that politics has left the neighborhood. It is no longer something that we do, but something that is done to us. It reinforces our feeling of being marginalized and gives us someone to blame
But what if that story, although factually correct, is flawed.
What if I told you that in 2012, the first year the maps were in effect, Democrats added one Assembly seat and one Senate seat to the seats won under the old map in 2010?
What if I told you that in 2018 Democrats won the same number of Senate seats as in 2010, before the gerrymander? And in 2020, Democrats won the same number of Assembly races as they did in 2010?
You might begin to think something besides rigged maps have contributed to Democratic legislative election woes. Maybe there is something we can do.
We remember with nostalgia the election of 2008 when for the first time in 18 years, Democrats won majorities in both Assembly and Senate. We conveniently forget the election of 2010 when with the same map in effect, Democrats dropped 14 Assembly seats and four Senate seats.
So what happened in 2010? And what has happened in the years since to keep Democrats losing?
Democratic exuberance in using their unusual majorities in 2008 probably created some backlash and there was inappropriate behavior by the Speaker, but the primary cause was a concerted Republican effort led by Karl Rove to take power at the state level by electing more state legislators.
That effort was supremely successful. Nationwide, 680 legislative seats switched from Democrat to Republican – 18 were in Wisconsin. I remember the ads run against Kathleen that year. They were slick and effective. She won by 400 votes, down from the 2,200 she had won by four years earlier, but many of her colleagues from rural Western and Central Wisconsin lost.
In the years since, voting patterns in rural Wisconsin have changed. It is these new voting patterns, rather than the new maps, which have resulted in continued Republican legislative majorities.
That change is rooted in the successful efforts by Republicans to motivate voters who hadn’t voted before to go to the polls and vote.
The increase in rural Republican voters showed up first in Scott Walker’s recall election in 2012 and accelerated substantially in the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020.
In the 63 mostly rural counties outside of Madison, Milwaukee and the Milwaukee suburbs, total turnout increased by some 80,000 in 2016 and another 80,000 in 2020, reaching an all-time high. Those new voters voted Republican, helping to increase the Republican vote in those counties by 204,000.
Legislative races felt the impact. In our Assembly District that had long voted Democrat the incumbent lost by a substantial margin in 2016. In the week after the election, Kathleen went over to Whitehall to look at election records to try to make sense of what happened.
She found there had been a lot of new voters. Some 26 percent of those who voted registered to vote on election day and voted for the first time. From the registration cards, many of those new voters were in their 40s or older. Some appeared to be families. They came to vote Republican. Vote totals tell the story.
In the 25 counties across the Western, Central and Northern Wisconsin that sent five Democratic senators to Madison in 2008, the Republican vote has gone up since then by 85,000 in off years and 100,000 in presidential years. Democrats continue to lose (only one remains) not because the lines changed, but because we haven’t matched the Republican effort and gone out and motivated new voters.
The increase in Republican votes in rural areas didn’t just happen. For more than a decade, conservative organizations including Americans for Prosperity, the National Rifle Association, Wisconsin Family Action, and the National Center for Life and Liberty have worked on voter turnout. As early as 2012 the Washington Post reported, “Conservatives have built a house-by-house turnout machine already tested in the successful campaign to fight a union-backed recall of GOP Gov. Scott Walker.”
From the beginning, those organizations focused on rural areas. Increasingly their emphasis has been on voter recruiting, voter registration, and motivating people to vote, often working through churches and religious organizations.
Despite what the vote totals tell us, we believe what we keep getting told by our leaders. It is the gerrymander. When Democrats win statewide and Republicans keep returning large majorities to the Assembly and Senate, it has to be the lines.
Having drawn the lines for Downstate Districts in Illinois after the 1970 census, I agree that lines make a difference. Where every line is drawn helps someone and hurts someone. There is no neutral line.
There are limits to what can be done, however. You can’t move populations around. Which in Wisconsin is a problem for Democrats. Too many Democrats live in Madison and Milwaukee. Not enough live in the rest of the state where most of the legislative districts are. Republicans, on the other hand, are dispersed more strategically.
The numbers are pretty stark. Madison and Milwaukee have 25 percent of the population and 25 percent of the legislative districts. But 36 percent of Democrats live and vote there. In contrast only 13 percent of Republicans live in Madison and Milwaukee. Democrats win big, but that is only 25 percent of the state.
In the rest of the state, home to 75 percent of the population and 75 percent of the legislative districts, Republicans have 87 percent of their votes to spread around while Democrats are down to 64 percent of their votes. Even a “fair” map can’t make that work for Democrats. The population imbalance makes it even more imperative for Democrats to motivate new voters in rural parts of the state if they want to regain legislative power.
The first step in fixing a problem is figuring out what the cause is. If you don’t get that right whatever fix is tried isn’t going to work.
The problem for Democrats can be described quite simply. Republicans control the legislature. Republicans control the legislature because they are winning in the more rural parts of the state. They are winning in the more rural parts of the state because they have been actively motivating new voters out there for years.
What is the fix? First, acknowledge the problem. Congratulating ourselves for statewide victories and blaming gerrymandering for legislative losses isn’t going to change the results. If we have no responsibility for legislative loses, we won’t start among ourselves what is a necessary and more difficult conversation.
What is it about what are we doing, what are we advocating, how are we acting, that is unattractive to rural voters? What can we do differently? How can we be more effective?
At some point if we want legislative power we have to go out and get it. We have to convince people who live in the rural parts of Wisconsin that their lives will be better, their communities more livable, if Democrats win. We have a lot of catching up to do.