State News

As redistricting battle heats up, impact of UW students’ votes at stake

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit that sought to prove that partisan redistricting had disenfranchised voters, instead forcing the plaintiffs to prove their case first to a lower court before being heard again.

Image By: Laura Mahoney

In November 2012, Wisconsinites went to the polls in the first election since the state Legislature redrew boundaries for the state’s voting districts.

In that election, Republicans received only 47 percent of the vote in state Assembly races but won more than 60 percent of the chamber’s seats. Democrats, with a majority of the state’s vote, won a much smaller number of seats — only 39 of 99 total.

State legislators redrew Wisconsin’s electoral districts the year before. They packed urban Democratic voters into small, heavily concentrated districts, and spread non-urban Democrats out as widely as possible, dispersing their votes into large, strongly Republican districts.

Partisan redistricting — gerrymandering — legislators learned, could be used to change the game.

“It’s pretty much made the Legislature immune to shifts in public views about the two parties,” said UW-Madison professor Barry Burden, Director of the Elections Research Center. “It’s essentially locked in a Republican majority for the decade.”

Districts are redrawn every 10 years, after a U.S. Census, to accommodate changes in regional political geography. The last census, released in 2010, put increased pressure on the year’s state races; the party who controlled the government would control the map.

“Republicans won the governorship in Scott Walker, the Assembly and the state Senate, and that was a crucial time because it put them in charge of map-drawing,” Burden said. “They took advantage of that in a way that parties in Wisconsin had not taken advantage of it before.”

In Wisconsin, college campuses are some of the most heavily impacted localities; legislators boxed universities and college towns into small, heavily Democratic districts, surrounded by a sea of larger, reliably Republican ones.

“They say that politicians don’t listen to young people because they don’t vote, but young people don’t vote because they don't feel that the government represents them,” said Eliana Locke, vice chair of the UW-Madison College Democrats. “Gerrymandering doesn’t help that.”

Madison, Eau Claire and La Crosse are prime examples of squeezing Democrats into few districts. Each location has more than enough votes to elect a Democratic legislator while blunting their voters’ overall impact on the state’s partisan power balance.

Sarah Semrad, a UW-La Crosse student and vice chair College Democrats of Wisconsin, says although she feels represented by state Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, she doesn’t approve of one party having an upper hand.

“We should pick our elected officials, they should not be able to pick us,” Semrad said.

Since 2010, gerrymandering has become a decisive factor in elections across the country.

Democrats held power in six states during the last redistricting cycle, and the district lines they constructed gave them 72 percent of those states’ legislative seats with only 53 percent of the vote. Republicans, who did exceptionally well in state races in 2010, controlled the process in 17 states, with similarly effective results.

In other states, such as Iowa, legislators don’t have the authority to redraw district lines. Instead, they use either an independent, bipartisan commission or a nonpartisan authority to draw their maps. This is designed to limit partisan influence on the process.

Partisan redistricting has not gone unchallenged, however, as some say it violates the U.S. Constitution.

Wisconsin’s electoral map was struck down by a panel of federal judges last November for being overly partisan. Currently, the maps are being debated in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I think lawmakers and governors around the country are interested in this case regardless of party,” said Gov. Scott Walker after the 2016 election. “They believe the legislative bodies should be drawing the [district] lines, not the courts."

The court’s decision will likely have huge implications for election law. Either the court will determine a line has been crossed and proper redrawing standards must be set, or they will officially decide there is no constitutional limit to how partisan the redistricting process can be.

“What makes the Wisconsin case special is the degree to which Republicans get an advantage from the map and how durable that advantage seems to be,” Burden said.

How America’s districts look in 2020 — after the next census — will depend entirely on the court’s decision.

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