For not the first time in recent years, Wisconsin’s capital is the scene of protesters angry at the machinations of the state’s Republican leadership.
Wisconsin Republicans suffered a difficult loss last month when incumbent Gov. Scott Walker lost his bid for reelection, after weathering a prior reelection contest and a much-watched recall effort in 2012 that rocked the capital for months. Walker had been lucky with the electorates during his prior races: a special election in 2012 and Republican-friendly years in 2010 and 2014. In 2018, with Democrats surging nationally, Walker got the boot.
In short order, the Republican leadership in the state assembly called for a special session to enact new legislation — legislation explicitly aimed at handcuffing the incoming Democratic governor, among other things. Hence the protests.
What makes the situation in Wisconsin particularly remarkable, though, is how lopsided the playing field is for the Republicans pushing the legislative changes.
The current assembly was elected in 2016. That year, Republican assembly candidates earned about 161,000 more votes than did Democratic candidates. In total, they won about 52 percent of the votes cast.
The election left them with a 64-to-35 majority in the assembly. By winning 52 percent of the vote, the Republicans won 65 percent of the seats.
That’s the assembly that is pushing the current changes, an assembly that seems to have benefited from gerrymandering, given that discrepancy between votes won and seats held.
That perception was reinforced last month.
The results of the 2018 election were even more lopsided. Democrats won 205,000 more votes than Republicans statewide — but swung only one assembly seat!
They won 53 percent of the vote and only 36 percent of the seats.
However, that can be explained in part by the fact that Democrats had far more seats in which they weren’t running against a Republican opponent. Nearly half of the votes the Democrats earned were in districts where their candidates didn’t face significant opposition. In contested races, Republicans won more votes than Democrats.
But the results were still extremely lopsided. In 2016, Republicans won 57 percent of the vote in contested races but ended up winning 86 percent of those seats. In 2018, Republicans won the same percentage of the vote — but won 89 percent of the seats.
In raw terms: Republicans won 57 percent of the vote in contested races in 2016 and won 43 of 50 seats. In 2018, Republicans won the same percentage of the vote in contested races — but won 56 of 63 seats.
That’s how gerrymandering works. Even the fact that so many more Democratic seats are uncontested is by design: By making certain districts heavily Democratic, many others can be more easily made slightly Republican. In this case, the result of the gerrymandering is a chamber that is more empowered to enact changes that weaken the governor now that the governor no longer shares its party affiliation.
Our James Hohmann noted that this playbook is being deployed in other states, too, following the lead of North Carolina’s Republican legislature after a Democrat won the governorship there in 2016. In addition to limiting the power of the chief executive, Wisconsin and states like Arizona are hoping to change how elections operate to create a more favorable playing field.
But why? Why not simply take the loss and move on?
That these efforts are arising now, near the peak of partisan polarization, is probably not a coincidence. In December, the Public Religion Research Institute released the results of a survey that tracks with other polling in recent years: Most partisans see members of the opposing party as a threat to the United States. Among Republicans, 52 percent see Democrats as a serious threat to the country; among Democrats, 54 percent see Republicans in the same light. (Three-quarters of Democrats also view President Trump as a serious threat.)
Whether those views are a primary driver of the effort in Wisconsin isn’t demonstrated. But it’s not much of a stretch to assume that the unusual effort to consolidate power at the expense of the winner of an election might stem, to some degree, from a pervasive sense that the opposition is dangerous.
The problem, of course, is that such post-election moves — like rampant gerrymandering — undercut the ideas that underlie our political system.
As Georgetown University public policy professor Donald Moynihan put it to The Washington Post: “Politicians who change the rules of the game because they don’t like the outcomes are a danger to democracy.”
Especially when they seem to have the power they do, in part thanks to district boundaries they themselves have drawn.