There is a political conspiracy to corrupt our democratic system with a combination of gerrymandering, voter-ID laws and dark money.
As a Libertarian living in a Democratic controlled State, I can tell you that the dems are also guilty of gerrymandering. However, with GOP controlling 33 State legislatures, attack on our democracy is now mostly a red state issue.
On a quiet, tree-lined street in Racine, Wisconsin, in a neighborhood known as the Danish Village for its Scandinavian ancestry, sits a two-story white house with a large American flag hanging from the porch and a pro-police “We Back the Badge” sign in the yard. It’s the home of Republican state Sen. Van Wanggaard, a 65-year-old former cop whose blond hair resembles that of Dennis the Menace.
Two houses to the south, Wanggaard’s state Senate district – the 21st – abruptly cuts off to exclude the rest of the largely Democratic neighborhood. This used to be one of the state’s most competitive Senate districts, encompassing all of rectangular-shaped Racine County, a 50/50 mix of urban and rural communities in southeast Wisconsin. But since the GOP gained control of the state’s government in 2010, and redrew the legislative maps, the district is now shaped like a horseshoe, pulling in the Republican countryside of Racine and Kenosha counties while excluding heavily Democratic areas – except for the block where Wanggaard lives. “It’s a prime example of how a party in power chose a district for their guy,” says John Lehman, a Democrat who represented the 21st before Wanggaard.
To say that Republicans are facing a toxic political environment heading into the 2018 midterm elections would be a massive understatement. Donald Trump is the most unpopular president at this stage of his term in modern American history. Just three in 10 Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party, and Democratic voters’ enthusiasm to vote in 2018 tops Republican voters’ by 17 points. But because of sophisticated gerrymandering, Republicans who should be vulnerable, like Wanggaard, have been seen as untouchable. “It’s more challenging than it should be because of the way the districts are drawn,” says Jenni Dye, who works for Democrats in Wisconsin’s state Senate. Wanggaard is among 11 Republican state senators up for re-election in 2018, but no one has stepped forward to challenge him yet.
The gerrymandering in Wisconsin, which experts call among the most extreme in U.S. history, is but one part of Republicans’ stealth plan to stay in office. Since Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature took power, they’ve also introduced some of the country’s harshest voting restrictions, passing laws that make it harder for Democratic-leaning constituencies to register to vote and cast ballots. At the same time, the state has become the “Wild West of dark money,” according to Lisa Graves, a senior fellow at the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, with Republican politicians like Walker raising unprecedented sums from billionaire donors to finance their campaigns.
“All three of these things have to be seen as part of a whole,” says Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s attorney general, who founded the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in 2016 to challenge Republican gerrymandering efforts. “Unregulated dark money combined with these voter-ID laws combined with gerrymandering is inconsistent with how our nation’s system is supposed to be set up. American citizens ought to be concerned about the state of our democracy. We could end up with a system where a well-financed minority that has views inconsistent with the vast majority of the American people runs this country.”
More immediately, a beleaguered Republican Party tainted by Trump could still retain majorities in 2018 and 2020. “It’s not a level playing field,” says Tom Perez, head of the Democratic National Committee. “There are millions of people whose votes effectively don’t count.” And as a measure of the GOP’s ability to maintain a political advantage, despite widespread public opposition to its policies, look no further than Wisconsin. “We’ve been under a counterrevolution here for the past six years,” says Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks the influence of money in politics. “Walker has urged other states to follow his model. Reactionary politics is a big Wisconsin export now.”
In the summer of 2011, soon after activists occupied the rotunda of the Wisconsin state capitol to protest Walker’s bill stripping public-employee unions of collective-bargaining rights, Republican members of the legislature visited the offices of Michael Best & Friedrich, the party’s go-to law firm. The GOP was in control of the state’s redistricting process for the first time since the 1950s, and Republicans were shown to the “map room,” where their aides were drawing new political districts in secret following the 2010 census. The legislators signed confidentiality agreements, pledging not to discuss the work with anyone, even though the redistricting was financed with taxpayer funds. “Public comments on this map may be different than what you hear in this room,” read the talking points distributed to GOP legislators. “Ignore the public comments.”
The new maps had titles like “Aggressive,” to describe how they favored Republicans. “The maps we pass will determine who’s here 10 years from now,” a legislative aide told the Republican caucus. “We have an opportunity?.?.?.?to draw these maps that Republicans haven’t had in decades.”
On July 11th, 2011, the maps were introduced in the Legislature; no Democrat had seen them before they were released. There was one public hearing, two days later, and the reshaped districts were approved the next week on a party-line vote. “This looks fair to me,” said Wanggaard to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I don’t have anything jumping out at me.” (Wanggaard declined to comment for this article.)
Yet his district had been radically transformed, from a 50/50 swing district to one that favored a Republican by 16 points. Racine and Kenosha counties, which border each other, had been separate state Senate districts, which made sense: The counties have their own newspapers, school districts and boards of supervisors. Both districts were politically competitive. “For the citizens, their vote really mattered,” says Lehman, the former state senator. “That’s the way it ought to be in every single district in America.”
Republicans took the districts and flipped them vertically, combining Racine and Kenosha counties for the first time in a hundred years. As a result, Republicans gained at least two seats in the state Legislature. Wanggaard’s new red district encompassed the sprawling GOP exurbs and farmland, with Democratic voters concentrated in the urban centers of the two counties.
Lehman, a retired public-school teacher in Racine, represented the 21st District from 1996 to 2010. He lived a few blocks from Wanggaard and used to teach at the same high school where Wanggaard was sometimes stationed as an off-duty cop. Wanggaard defeated him in 2010 by 3,000 votes. But after Wanggaard voted for Walker’s anti-union legislation, Lehman beat him in a recall election in 2012. By then the new district lines had been drawn by Republicans, but they didn’t take effect until after the recall, which put Lehman in the awkward position of winning an election in his competitive old district but serving a new, deeply Republican one. “I tried to serve the district, but it was like a foreign land,” he says.
On a brisk afternoon in late November, Lehman took me on a tour of the 21st. We departed from the Racine neighborhood where he and Wanggaard live and drove down narrow country roads to the far southwest corner of the district, passing old farms, new McMansions and small towns with yard signs that read keeping christ in christmas. After an hour, we reached the resort town of Twin Lakes, population 6,000, near the Illinois border.
Unlike Racine, which has a large black population and votes Democratic, Twin Lakes is overwhelmingly white and Republican; Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff to Donald Trump, used to be its village attorney. When Lehman spoke at a Memorial Day parade in Twin Lakes, throwing candy to kids, “few people knew who I was,” he says. When he had listening sessions in the district’s rural areas, nobody showed up. “If you lived out here, would you pay any attention to anything that happened in Racine?” Lehman asks.
In 2014, Lehman decided to run for lieutenant governor instead of trying to win re-election in his new district. “It was unwinnable for a Democrat,” he says. Wanggaard ran again and won by 23 points.
Most of the state Legislature’s Republican majority has been just as secure. In 2012, Obama carried Wisconsin by seven points, and Democratic legislative candidates received 51.4 percent of the statewide vote, but Republican candidates won 60 of 99 seats in the Statehouse. Under the Republican map, the number of safe GOP seats in the 132-member legislature increased from 55 to 69, and the number of swing districts decreased from 24 to 13. It’s a practically foolproof system: No matter what happened nationally, Republicans would maintain control of state politics.
This isn’t just a problem in Wisconsin. Following the 2010 elections, Republicans had full control of the redistricting process for state legislative and U.S. House seats in 21 states, compared with eight states for Democrats. Republicans now hold as many as 22 additional House seats because of gerrymandering, according to an analysis by the Associated Press – nearly the same margin as the 24 seats Democrats need in order to take back the House. During the 2012 elections, Democratic House candidates won 1.4 million more votes nationally than Republicans, but the GOP won 33 more seats. Of course, Democrats have also employed gerrymandering to gain partisan advantage, including in blue states like Illinois and Maryland. But in the past decade Republicans have turned the manipulation of political lines into an art form.