September 9, 2014

Wisconsin Public Television spotlights redistricting success story

A Sept. 5 report on Wisconsin Public Television’s “Here and Now” program called Republican state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck’s district “a microcosm of the state of Wisconsin.”

WPT Loudenbeck report

That it is. The district, occupying parts of Rock and Walworth counties, is part urban, part rural, part old industrial (Beloit), part upscale tourist town (Williams Bay).

It’s also a microcosm of something else: the redrawing of voter boundaries for partisan ends. Hence WPT’s interest.

Loudenbeck was first elected, in 2010, to a district that included all of Beloit, a Democratic stronghold. She lost in the city but, “with the tea party wave at her back,” as WPT reporter Zac Schultz put it, carried the outlying areas to snare 54 percent of the total vote.

Then came the eruptions of 2011, over curbing collective bargaining for public employees and cutting funds to public schools. Loudenbeck backed these changes, along with a new state voter ID law. Democrats warned that she would pay in the 2012 election, a consequence Loudenbeck was prepared to accept.

“I was very aware that there were people that were going to be unhappy,” Loudenbeck told WPT. “I didn’t have an expectation of winning a second time.”

But she did win, by an even greater margin of 56 percent, after Republicans oversaw a secretive and costly redistricting process, after the last 10-year census. Loudenbeck’s new district kept her hometown of Clinton but included less than half of Beloit and contained, by her account, “about 50 percent new people.”

Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, a prominent proponent of nonpartisan redistricting, told WPT, “When the Republicans gerrymandered the state, they really took care of Rep. Loudenbeck.”

Loudenbeck finds this laughable, noting that hypothetical nonpartisan maps produced by a state agency at Cullen’s behest split these districts in a similar way. But Schultz, in his report, said “the facts are clear: Amy Loudenbeck’s re-election prospects went way up with the change.”

Indeed, her margin of victory was almost exactly what strategists redrawing the voter boundaries predicted, in documents made public via a redistricting lawsuit. New computerized mapping technologies have allowed politicians to pick their voters with astonishing precision.

WPT, in a companion report, found that the strategists’ predictions in the more than 50 GOP-held Assembly seats facing Democratic challengers in 2012 were accurate, on average, to within a single percentage point. The GOP incumbents won all but three of these races.

One way to maximize partisan advantage is to pack as many opposite-party voters into as few districts as possible. In the district that acquired the shorn majority of Beloit, Democrat Janis Ringhand won with 64 percent of the vote, up from her 53 percent margin of victory in 2010.

In the upcoming Nov. 4 election, the Democrat seeking this seat is unopposed; so is Loudenbeck. Partisan redistricting took two competitive districts and made one so overwhelmingly Democratic and the other so safely Republican that general election voters will have no choice at all.

Overall, 55 of the 116 legislative seats are uncontested on the ballot.

Cullen, who is not seeking re-election (Ringhand won the primary in his largely Democratic Senate district), finds this deplorable, telling WPT “neither political party should be trusted to draw the maps.”

Dissenting from this view are the Republicans who control both houses of the state Legislature and have a good chance of doing so after the fall election. Loudenbeck, while acknowledging that “some of the districts became less competitive” due to redistricting, does not consider the process flawed.

But advocates are using the election to force the issue. Common Cause in Wisconsin and its supporters are asking candidates for state office to pledge support for nonpartisan redistricting.

Among the roughly five dozen signatories are Ringhand and Mary Burke, Democratic candidate for governor. As of early September, no Republican candidates had made the pledge.

  • Jonathan Swift

    “Partisan redistricting took two competitive districts and made one so overwhelmingly Democratic and the other so safely Republican that general election voters will have no choice at all.

    Overall, 55 of the 116 legislative seats are uncontested on the ballot. In 2010, before redistricting, only 24 seats lacked general election rivals.”

    Actually there is a choice they can complacently accept their disenfranchisement or protest.
    A massive write in campaign for a corporation for each of these seats with at least one of the 55 winning would draw attention to this mess and cause the courts to rethink corporate person-hood. I’d suggest Walmart because it is easy to spell, but in some parts of the state
    New Glarus Brewery may do well.