Analysis Politics

Wisconsin Democrats Won More Votes in the Midterms. In the Legislature, It Didn’t Matter.

Alys Brooks

The Republican-held legislature’s aggressive gerrymandering has ensured minority rule for the GOP in Wisconsin.

Democrats running for Wisconsin’s legislature in this month’s midterms won a greater percentage of the vote than they had in years, but you wouldn’t know that from the results.

Republicans will keep their massive house majority. Tallying unofficial results from county clerks shows Democratic house candidates won 54 percent votes cast in the November 6 midterms, while GOP candidates netted 44 percent. The tally includes uncontested races for the state assembly in which only one candidate received votes.

This can be traced back to Act 43, the Republican-held legislature’s aggressively gerrymandered map. Democrats’ case against the map, Gill vs. Whitford, was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, but sent back so they could prove they had standing to sue.

In the meantime, the mapsmade by Republicans to ensure a marked Republican advantageare the law of the land.

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The GOP edge actually goes beyond hyper-partisan gerrymandering—it’s part of Wisconsin’s political geography. In Wisconsin, roughly a third of Democratic voters live in two counties, Dane and Milwaukee. Even if you draw relatively straightforward districts, these large number of votes will naturally fall into a small number of districts, limiting their impact. Political scientists Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden dubbed this phenomenon “unintentional gerrymandering” in a New York Times op-ed

That doesn’t make the problem insurmountable, but it does mean that fair maps may necessitate “more radical steps that would require a party’s seat share to approximate its vote share.”

When Chen ran experiments for Wisconsin, the random districting plans tended to favor Republicans slightly but much less than Act 43 did. Chen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, declined to comment, citing his role as an expert witness in Gill v. Whitford.

While the analysis is academic, the consequences are anything but. In Wisconsin, Democrats remain a powerless minority in both chambers and newly elected Democratic Governor-elect Tony Evers will have to work with Republican legislators to get the next budget passed, let alone any meaningful legislation. Wisconsin Republicans, including defeated Gov. Scott Walker, are talking openly about watering down gubernatorial powers before Evers take officea move tried by North Carolina GOP lawmakers after they lost the governor’s mansion in 2017. 

Rather than undermining the impact of votes by shuffling district lines, voter ID laws get in the way of citizens voting at all, under the guise of preventing voter fraud. Voter fraud is essentially climate change’s polar opposite: Despite the evidence being clear that it’s extremely rare, the Republican response to it is overwhelming.

Exactly how rare? When Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School, looked for cases of in-person voter fraud, he found just 31 cases across elections that totaled more than 1 billion votes.

Nonetheless, Republicans have portrayed voter fraud as a crisis to justify strict requirements. Usually they’re presented with a patina of reasonableness—you need an ID for everyday activities like driving and buying alcohol, why not something as critical as voting? A Marquette Law School poll found in 2014 that 60 percent of Wisconsin adults polled approved of requiring a photo ID to vote.

However, requirements to present an ID are more onerous than they appear. Anita Johnson, Wisconsin voter ID coalition coordinator at VoteRiders, heads up their efforts to ensure every voter has photo ID, even coming along to the DMV to help them get an ID if necessary. When asked about what stops people from voting, Johnson is unequivocal.

“Photo ID is the biggest obstacle that stopped them from voting,” she said.

Dee Hall and her students found similar patterns in her reporting. Hall, managing editor at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, worked with University of Wisconsin journalism students on the center’s Undemocratic series.

She gave the example of a 95-year-old woman who voted regularly but has no license or a birth certificate because she was born at home. Not only does she lack a photo ID, getting one without a means of transportation or a birth certificate is challenging. While few voters are stymied by this set of circumstances, variations on it abound: Students who have public university IDs that don’t meet the requirements for school IDs, homeless people who don’t have a permanent address, and city residents who use mass transit instead of driving. Reporting done by Hall and her students, Cameron Smith and Madeline Heim, found that students, people of color, and the elderly were most affected.

Beyond the complicated requirements, many of the issues with photo ID requirements come down to education, Johnson said.

“A lot of people don’t know that you can get an ID for free,” she said.

Johnson pointed out the common term “voter ID” is arguably a misnomer—the IDs required are not specific to voting—and can lead people to think the ID they have isn’t enough to vote.

All these issues mean that a superficially fair policy can leave people out of the voting process.

As with gerrymandering, Wisconsin leads in discriminatory photo ID requirements, as one of seven states that fall into a “strict photo ID” category, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thirty-four states have some sort of voter identification law.

The solution to voter ID woes is straightforward, if politically difficult: repeal voter ID laws. Beyond that, Johnson said automatic voter registration would make a big difference. The same documentation requirements that stand in the way of voter ID can also make it hard to register to vote.

Because of the infinite number of possible district maps, solving gerrymandering is less obvious. Joseph Bukowski, an attorney at Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren in Milwaukee, advocated for an independent districting commission in an article for the Marquette Law Review. The idea is nothing new—Alaska, Arizona, California, Iowa, Idaho, Montana and Washington state already have one—but his proposal adds something new: selecting people who never or rarely vote to minimize partisanship as much as possible. Bukowski acknowledges the counter-intuitiveness of the proposal might stand in the way of its adoption.

“The public reaction wouldn’t be too great—’Oh, you’re relying on nonvoters.’ It would be a tough sell,” he said. “It goes back to, we rely on laypeople for juries, why not maps.”

While Evers has expressed support for eliminating photo ID and reforming redistricting, legislation is unlikely to even come to the floor for a vote in the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. In the meantime, VoteRiders and organizations like it continue to help people vote.

“We’re looking for people who are falling through the cracks. We are looking for people who don’t have photo IDs and are not aware they need a photo ID.” Johnson said. “We’re not going to stop because the election has stopped.”

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