Seen from outside, particularly from European countries, the turn of political events in Wisconsin that forced the voters of that state to choose between not voting or voting in conditions that threatened their health is one of those American anomalies that bedevil a country that was a cradle of modern democracy. Democracy is not served when one party – the GOP – wins less than half of the votes, as it happened in 2012, but secures 60 of the state’s 99 assembly seats. The Republican majorities grew even larger in 2014 and 2016, despite getting just over 50% of the Wisconsin vote. The explanation is in a single word that is engraved in the American political jargon: gerrymandering. The function of gerrymandering is to dilute the voting power of the opposing party across many districts by concentrating it in one district. The corollary of this scheme is the ability of the majority party to use its superior numbers to guarantee that the minority party will not attain a majority in any district.
The term “gerrymandering” comes from a governor of Massachusetts – Elbridge Gerry – who created a partisan district in the Boston area in the shape of the mythological salamander. Since its beginning there in 1812, gerrymandering has been considered a corruption of the democratic process. Whatever the political and moral judgment of this electoral device, gerrymandering is entrenched in the American political system. In practical terms, politicians strive to create more packed districts, leading to more comfortable margins in unpacked ones. The perverse effects of gerrymandering are obvious in those states where the congressional district lines are drawn by their legislative assemblies. California, where gerrymandering was rampant, finally held a referendum in 2010 that gave the power to redraw the districts to a citizens’ commission. This move resulted in creating more competitive congressional districts.
No such move is on the horizon of Wisconsin. The recent disaster of the primary that was held against the will of the Democratic governor, Tony Evers, proves how a majority party can give short shrift to the opposition even when it is based on common sense health considerations. The Republican-controlled legislature refused the governor’s request and under the threat of the coronavirus forced the voters to go to the polls, waiting hours in line in Milwaukee. Many voters obviously stayed home. Republicans were looking at a low turnout to keep a seat in the state supreme court that they control. That court had voted to overrule the attempt of the governor to postpone the vote. The political morass of gerrymandering in Wisconsin has been compounded by the Republican campaign to impose the strictest voter ID laws in the nation. A law to that effect was approved by the legislature in 2016 and according to a study it deterred over 21,000 people from voting in Milwaukee and Dane counties, both Democratic strongholds. The next state elections will tell whether the Democrats have any chance of altering the electoral landscape of entrenched Republican dominion in the legislature and supreme court. The political observers do not see such a change coming owing to the simple fact that Wisconsin maps are so “gerrymandered” that Republicans can win the majority of house seats with a minority of the vote. On the other hand, the issue of voting rights transcends the confrontation in one state, as significant it may be in Wisconsin, and impinges on violations and excesses on the national stage. Donald Trump won Wisconsin by less than 23,000 votes. The Democrats are hell-bent on denying him a repeat of that feat. Much of their hope lies in making sure that minorities and students can vote in a state where voting is artificially restricted. Wisconsin’s recent history shows that democracy cannot be abridged by gerrymandering and voting laws passed under the pretext of eliminating fraud. And then there is the issue of voting by mail that is quickly becoming very contentious. In the meanwhile, something has to give in Wisconsin.