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Republicans’ Redistricting Opportunity

The GOP will create legislative districts that guarantee their hold on power for 10 years

Nov. 10, 2010
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Wisconsin Republicans won a big victory on Nov. 2 that gives them control of the state Legislature for the next two years, and potentially for the next decade because they will be able to draw electoral districts that favor their party.

Because this is a census year, the state Legislature and governor are charged with drawing not only the new boundaries for the state legislative districts, but also for the state’s congressional districts.

The new maps, like any piece of legislation, must pass both houses and be signed by the governor. For the past four decades no one party controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office in the post-census legislative session, so the two parties either had to compromise on a map or roll the dice and have the courts draw the new legislative map.

This year, however, the Republicans control everything. It’s almost certain that the Republican leaders of both houses will be able to come to an agreement about redistricting and carve up the state to suit their own political needs. Wisconsin is considered a swing state that votes marginally Democratic at the top of the ticket, especially in a presidential election cycle. For example, Wisconsin hasn’t voted for a Republican president since 1984. In a gubernatorial year, the top of the ticket is usually a little less Democratic. This past election was an unusual election.

Changes at the State Level

So how do you take a basically 50%-50% state and create districts that will ensure a majority of Republican legislators? By carefully redrawing the boundary lines, the Republicans will take the Democratic-majority districts and make them much more Democratic—basically concentrating Democrats into overwhelmingly Democratic districts. They will try to make the traditionally Republican districts a little less Republican and the competitive districts more Republican. A 65% Democratic district, for example, may become an 80% Democratic district while a 65% Republican district may become a 60% Republican district, still safe enough for a Republican to easily win.

But the competitive districts will become much less competitive. A 53% Democratic district that could easily go Republican in a good Republican year will probably become a 57% Republican district, and a 53% Republican district will become a 58% or 60% Republican district. Much of this depends on the part of the state in question, but the current computer software is very sophisticated and it will not be hard to draw very political lines. Gerrymandering has never been so easy now that we have great computer programs, so say goodbye to the traditional swing districts. Look for up to about 60 “safe” Republican seats in the state Assembly, for example, and roughly 40 “safe” Democratic seats. The redistricting will allow Republicans to remain in power at the state level until the next U.S. Census in 2020.

Are there any constraints on the party in power as they draw the new map? They do have to adhere to a few rules as they carve out the new districts. Although there is some flexibility, districts must have equal populations. New boundaries must comply with the Voting Rights Act and minority-heavy districts must be reasonably compact and proportional. The districts can’t have outlandish boundaries that tie together voters who have nothing in common. And, lastly, the “candidate of choice” of that minority group must have a reasonable chance of winning. So Republicans will begin redistricting under these parameters.

Can these districts be challenged? Yes, but they are most likely to be challenged in state courts, since federal courts have deferred redistricting cases to the state level. And since conservatives—including the two ethically challenged conservative justices who were elected in 2008 and 2007—are in the majority on the state Supreme Court, they’ll likely sign off on any Republican redistricting plans.

Changes in Congressional Representation

Before the Nov. 2 election, Wisconsin sent five Democrats and three Republicans to the U.S. House of Representatives. The past election changed this, and look for this change to last for at least the next 10 years.

Two Democratic seats are likely to remain quite safe—one in Milwaukee, which is held by Congresswoman Gwen Moore, and one in Madison, held by Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin. In fact, these districts will almost certainly become even more Democratic as the Republicans try to concentrate Democratic voters into these areas.

Three Republican districts are definitely safe, too—those held by Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner, Paul Ryan and Tom Petri.

But Republicans will turn the two districts in the northern part of the state—currently in the hands of Democrats but which will be controlled by Republicans come January—into much safer Republican districts.

The last congressional district, which runs along the Mississippi, will probably stay a swing district. It will be very difficult to make it more Republican at the same time one is making the district north of it more Republican as well. There just aren’t enough Republicans in the area to make all the districts safe for Republicans.

So instead of the current 5-3 split in the congressional delegation favoring the Democrats, the Republicans will have five fairly safe seats and the Democrats will be down to two safe seats. And Wisconsin will have one competitive congressional district out of eight.

Again, these districts can be challenged in the courts. But if a challenge is successful, the Republican-controlled state government will simply address the issues the court objected to and modify the maps to pass judicial review.


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