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Just Sayin'

Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.

Unrepresentative Democracy

Political, U.S., Wisconsin

With Republican success during the 2010 midterm elections, the party found itself in control of many state legislatures and governorships. This was especially true across many of the formerly Democratic-leaning Great Lakes states. Politicians in these states soon activated a seemingly coordinated effort to secure their new-found power. Among the moves were attempts to weaken unions, a traditional base of Democratic support. Legislation such as voter ID and curtailed early voting was passed to suppress traditionally Democratic voting blocks. Advantage was taken of the required decennial redistricting process to lock-in as many Republican legislative seats as possible.

The first two of these power-grabbing efforts met with mixed success. However, the third move-highly partisan redistricting- has paid off in spades. According to articles in Think Progress and the Washington Post, Democrats running for US Congress collected more total votes than Republicans candidates. Counting all reported races, Democrats won about 48.8% of the total votes versus 48.47 % for Republicans. Ignoring races in which only one candidate was running, the split is even greater-49.55% D to 48.54% R. At least half a million more American voters selected Democratic candidates than voted for Republicans. 

Despite collecting the majority of the votes for the combined US Congressional elections, the Democrats are still in the minority in the House. With a few seats still being decided, Democrats now have 197 House members vs the 234 Republican majority. The party which received more votes has only 45.7% of the seats. The the party collecting the fewer votes has a 54.3% majority, along with the crucial power to control House committees and the legislative agenda.

How did this happen? Why shouldn't the make-up of the House more closely match the popular vote totals? 2010 was a census year and, according to Federal law, the states must must adjust their US Congressional Districts to match population changes. States also use the opportunity to re-set their state legislative boundaries. Unfortunately for Democrats, 2010 was a year in which Republicans gained total control of many state governments. With that control came the ability to set district boundaries for the next decade to maximize the number of Republican- friendly districts.

The idea in the redistricting game is to put as many of your opponent's voters as possible in just a few districts. Your opponent ends up with a few districts that they win with extremely high margins. You adjust the boundaries to put your own voters in other districts, where they will provide you with many wins of more moderate margin. The resultant bizarre district shapes led to the term gerrymandering for this practice.

No state exemplifies 2011 gerrymandering more than Pennsylvania. Democratic House candidates there collected more votes than Republicans, by a 1.4% margin. However, Pennsylvania sent 14 Republicans and only 4 Democrats to Washington. So despite collecting fewer congressional candidate votes, Pennsylvanian Republicans constitute 78% of the state's Congressional delegation.

In Michigan, the Democrats only sent 5 of 14 candidates to Washington, despite having collected 53.9% of the major party congressional vote. The same story repeats in Virginia, North Carolina, and Ohio, accounting for the difference between total national vote and the House make-up. 

What about Wisconsin? In our eight US House districts, 50.8% of people voted for Democrats while slightly fewer (49.2%) voted for Republicans. Yet, of the eight seats, five (62.5%) went to the Republicans and only three (37.5%) went to Democrats. The Democratic voters were packed into a few deep blue districts, where they had huge victory margins, averaging 37%. The Republican voters were alloted to districts where they were needed to assure more wins. The average victory margin for Republicans was only 19%, about half that of the winning Democrats.

The State Assembly districts are no better. Of the reported State Assembly races, Democrats got 47.1% of the vote to 52.9% for the Republicans. However, that doesn't tell the entire story. A much higher percentage of Democrats actually voted. Fully nineteen of the districts were so deeply blue that the Democrat ran unopposed, while only four Republicans ran unopposed. Those heavily partisan district results were not reported by the press and could not be included in my vote percentages. The new Assembly, however, is only 39% Democratic and 61% Republican. Even more telling are the winning margins. Republicans won their seats by an average of 22%. Democrats were packed so tightly in the fewer blue districts that their average margin of victory was 64%!

In the 16 Wisconsin State Senate races, more voters (51.3%) selected Democrats than Republicans (48.7%).Yet, the Democrats lost two seats and majority control of the Senate. Again, because of gerrymandering, the average margin of victory for Democrats was a whopping 60%, while that for Republicans was 37%

How did such a situation come about in Wisconsin? For the past 50 years, no single party was in control during redistricting, so the maps were drawn with bipartisan support or by non-partisan judges. Ignoring state open meetings and records laws, the Republican lawmakers conducted our state's 2011 redistricting away from public scrutiny. A three judge panel deemed this sordid and furtive behavior by Republican legislators “all but shameful". The resultant highly partisan legislative maps make a mockery of the votes of Wisconsin's citizens.

Redistricting does not have to be corrupt. There are better ways of doing this. In Iowa, Florida, and Maine, a non-partisan organization draws the maps, and the legislature approves them. The Iowa process has been in use since 1980 and little contention has resulted. In six other states (WA, NJ, ID, HA, CA, and AZ) an independent or bipartisan organization is responsible for the entire process, with no legislative approval required. Wisconsin should take a lesson from these other states. We need to adopt such a non-partisan redistricting process so that our representative democracy becomes more truly representative.

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