A Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer shot an unarmed black man seven times in the back. An armed teenage vigilante has been charged with five felonies for shooting three people, and killing two, at the ensuing protests. As marches continued, with armed white snipers observed on downtown Kenosha rooftops, the state’s governor called for a special session of the legislature on police violence and social justice.
When the Milwaukee Bucks sat out an NBA playoff game Wednesday, amid national protests after a Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, the basketball team joined the call for their state legislature to reconvene and take action.
On Monday, Wisconsin’s state Senate and Assembly met. But it was more of a skeletal session than a special session. Both chambers gaveled in and out almost immediately. A television camera panned a gallery of empty mahogany chairs. By NBA standards, neither chamber stayed in session even the length of the 24-second shot clock. “Senators do not need to be present,” the Senate president’s chief of staff told reporters, “and no bills are being taken up.”
Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature cannot be budged. Not by the governor. Not by the people. Not by vigilantes in the streets. Not by the Milwaukee Bucks. Wisconsin’s brutally gerrymandered state legislative maps — by almost every standard, the nation’s most biased — guarantee that they can’t even be budged at the ballot box. And so they remain an immovable and unaccountable force.
This is the very real damage to representative democracy done by gerrymandering. It’s hardly the first example here in Wisconsin, where citizens have so little control over their own representatives you can scarcely call it a democracy at all.
Tony Evers, the state’s Democratic governor, has twice before tried to call the legislature into special session. Twice before, the legislature sneered.
Last November, when Evers ordered a special session on background checks for guns — a measure supported by 80 percent of Wisconsin residents — both chambers convened, then immediately adjourned without debate. The assembly gaveled out after 15 seconds. The Senate remained in session twice that long: Approximately 30 seconds.
Then in April, as the pandemic raged across Wisconsin, Evers called another special session and asked to postpone a statewide election until mid-May and to do all voting by mail. The assembly took 17 seconds to adjourn without action. The Senate adjourned even faster and no Republicans even bothered to attend; they had the clerk call the session and then immediately ended it.
Ordinarily, elected representatives might think twice before stiff-arming legislation backed by 80 percent of the state, or fear the wrath of the people for forcing voters to cast ballots, in person, and risk catching Covid-19 simply by exercising their right to vote. Wisconsin’s legislature, however, has insulated themselves from any consequences — indeed, insulated themselves from the people and the ballot box — by the district lines they drew themselves during the 2011 decennial redistricting.
Republican operatives and savvy mapmakers barricaded themselves into a Madison law office, dubbed it the “map room,” claimed attorney-client privilege for their furtive work, required legislators to sign a non-disclosure agreement before even being shown their own new district, and designed fancy regression models that ensured Democrats would hold a minority of seats even they won up to 57 percent of the statewide vote.
The maps have exceeded their designers high expectations all decade long. In 2018, for example, Wisconsin voters re-elected a Democratic U.S. senator, backed Evers for governor over two-term Republican incumbent Scott Walker, placed Democrats in every elected statewide office, and preferred Democratic assembly candidates by a margin of 190,000 votes. Republicans held the chamber, 64-35. They won 64 percent of the seats, with 46 percent of the votes.
How rigged are Wisconsin’s maps? So rigged that the Harvard’s Electoral Integrity Project, which quantifies the health of electoral systems in America and worldwide, rated the state’s electoral boundaries as a three on a scale of one to 100. This is not only the worst rating in the nation, it’s lower than any nation graded by the EIP has ever scored on this measure. This is not a rating received by a functioning democracy. It is the rating of an authoritarian state.
How little democracy exists in Wisconsin? If gerrymandering is the art of packing as many of the other party’s seats into as few districts as possible, then cracking the rest by spreading them thinly amongst the remaining seats, Wisconsin Republicans are a combination of Picasso, Monet, and Michelangelo. They packed Democratic voters into their districts with such ruthless efficiency that Republicans didn’t even bother contesting 30 of the Democratic winners. This purple state, often considered the Electoral College tipping point, has almost no competitive assembly seats. Only five of the 99 assembly seats were decided by fewer than five percentage points.
It begins with gerrymandering. It leads to this tyranny of an unaccountable minority. And it ends with an entire decade in which the people’s representatives in Wisconsin have placed themselves beyond the reach of the people.
Legislators can brazenly ignore the will of the people because they have gerrymandered the maps to ensure their legislative majorities survive, knowing that the maps render them bulletproof from facing consequences at the polls. The gerrymandered legislature then enacted one of the most restrictive voter-ID laws in the nation, which one study found could have deterred as many as 23,000 voters in the state’s two largest counties alone in 2016 from casting a ballot — more than the total number of votes by which Donald Trump carried the state. They forced voters to the polls during a pandemic. They loosened the state’s gun laws, then ignored the governor’s efforts to enact broadly popular gun control. And now, even with citizens in the streets and the unprecedented sight of the Bucks walking away from a playoff game, MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers boycotting play, and the NFL’s Green Bay Packers refusing to practice, the legislature remains unreachable.
Wisconsin has become a laboratory for enduring minority rule. Every legislative seat in the nation will be redrawn next year after the census. Your state might be next.
David Daley is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”