GOP Rigs Elections: Gerrymandering, Voter-ID Laws, Dark Money - Rolling Stone
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How the GOP Rigs Elections

With a combination of gerrymandering, voter-ID laws and dark money, Republicans have tipped the political scales in their favor. Will it be enough to keep Democrats from claiming victory in 2018?

How the GOP Rigs ElectionsHow the GOP Rigs Elections

Illustration by Victor Juhasz

On a quiet, tree-lined street in Racine, Wisconsin, in a neighborhood known as the Danish Village for its Scandinavian ancestry, sits a two-story white house with a large American flag hanging from the porch and a pro-police “We Back the Badge” sign in the yard. It’s the home of Republican state Sen. Van Wanggaard, a 65-year-old former cop whose blond hair resembles that of Dennis the Menace.

Two houses to the south, Wanggaard’s state Senate district – the 21st – abruptly cuts off to exclude the rest of the largely Democratic neighborhood. This used to be one of the state’s most competitive Senate districts, encompassing all of rectangular-shaped Racine County, a 50/50 mix of urban and rural communities in southeast Wisconsin. But since the GOP gained control of the state’s government in 2010, and redrew the legislative maps, the district is now shaped like a horseshoe, pulling in the Republican countryside of Racine and Kenosha counties while excluding heavily Democratic areas – except for the block where Wanggaard lives. “It’s a prime example of how a party in power chose a district for their guy,” says John Lehman, a Democrat who represented the 21st before Wanggaard.

To say that Republicans are facing a toxic political environment heading into the 2018 midterm elections would be a massive understatement. Donald Trump is the most unpopular president at this stage of his term in modern American history. Just three in 10 Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party, and Democratic voters’ enthusiasm to vote in 2018 tops Republican voters’ by 17 points. But because of sophisticated gerrymandering, Republicans who should be vulnerable, like Wanggaard, have been seen as untouchable. “It’s more challenging than it should be because of the way the districts are drawn,” says Jenni Dye, who works for Democrats in Wisconsin’s state Senate. Wanggaard is among 11 Republican state senators up for re-election in 2018, but no one has stepped forward to challenge him yet.

The gerrymandering in Wisconsin, which experts call among the most extreme in U.S. history, is but one part of Republicans’ stealth plan to stay in office. Since Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature took power, they’ve also introduced some of the country’s harshest voting restrictions, passing laws that make it harder for Democratic-leaning constituencies to register to vote and cast ballots. At the same time, the state has become the “Wild West of dark money,” according to Lisa Graves, a senior fellow at the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, with Republican politicians like Walker raising unprecedented sums from billionaire donors to finance their campaigns.

“All three of these things have to be seen as part of a whole,” says Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s attorney general, who founded the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in 2016 to challenge Republican gerrymandering efforts. “Unregulated dark money combined with these voter-ID laws combined with gerrymandering is inconsistent with how our nation’s system is supposed to be set up. American citizens ought to be concerned about the state of our democracy. We could end up with a system where a well-financed minority that has views inconsistent with the vast majority of the American people runs this country.”

More immediately, a beleaguered Republican Party tainted by Trump could still retain majorities in 2018 and 2020. “It’s not a level playing field,” says Tom Perez, head of the Democratic National Committee. “There are millions of people whose votes effectively don’t count.” And as a measure of the GOP’s ability to maintain a political advantage, despite widespread public opposition to its policies, look no further than Wisconsin. “We’ve been under a counterrevolution here for the past six years,” says Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks the influence of money in politics. “Walker has urged other states to follow his model. Reactionary politics is a big Wisconsin export now.”

In the summer of 2011, soon after activists occupied the rotunda of the Wisconsin state capitol to protest Walker’s bill stripping public-employee unions of collective-bargaining rights, Republican members of the legislature visited the offices of Michael Best & Friedrich, the party’s go-to law firm. The GOP was in control of the state’s redistricting process for the first time since the 1950s, and Republicans were shown to the “map room,” where their aides were drawing new political districts in secret following the 2010 census. The legislators signed confidentiality agreements, pledging not to discuss the work with anyone, even though the redistricting was financed with taxpayer funds. “Public comments on this map may be different than what you hear in this room,” read the talking points distributed to GOP legislators. “Ignore the public comments.”

The new maps had titles like “Aggressive,” to describe how they favored Republicans. “The maps we pass will determine who’s here 10 years from now,” a legislative aide told the Republican caucus. “We have an opportunity . . . to draw these maps that Republicans haven’t had in decades.”

On July 11th, 2011, the maps were introduced in the Legislature; no Democrat had seen them before they were released. There was one public hearing, two days later, and the reshaped districts were approved the next week on a party-line vote. “This looks fair to me,” said Wanggaard to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I don’t have anything jumping out at me.” (Wanggaard declined to comment for this article.)

Yet his district had been radically transformed, from a 50/50 swing district to one that favored a Republican by 16 points. Racine and Kenosha counties, which border each other, had been separate state Senate districts, which made sense: The counties have their own newspapers, school districts and boards of supervisors. Both districts were politically competitive. “For the citizens, their vote really mattered,” says Lehman, the former state senator. “That’s the way it ought to be in every single district in America.”

Republicans took the districts and flipped them vertically, combining Racine and Kenosha counties for the first time in a hundred years. As a result, Republicans gained at least two seats in the state Legislature. Wanggaard’s new red district encompassed the sprawling GOP exurbs and farmland, with Democratic voters concentrated in the urban centers of the two counties.

Lehman, a retired public-school teacher in Racine, represented the 21st District from 1996 to 2010. He lived a few blocks from Wanggaard and used to teach at the same high school where Wanggaard was sometimes stationed as an off-duty cop. Wanggaard defeated him in 2010 by 3,000 votes. But after Wanggaard voted for Walker’s anti-union legislation, Lehman beat him in a recall election in 2012. By then the new district lines had been drawn by Republicans, but they didn’t take effect until after the recall, which put Lehman in the awkward position of winning an election in his competitive old district but serving a new, deeply Republican one. “I tried to serve the district, but it was like a foreign land,” he says.

On a brisk afternoon in late November, Lehman took me on a tour of the 21st. We departed from the Racine neighborhood where he and Wanggaard live and drove down narrow country roads to the far southwest corner of the district, passing old farms, new McMansions and small towns with yard signs that read “Keeping Christ in Christmas.” After an hour, we reached the resort town of Twin Lakes, population 6,000, near the Illinois border.

Unlike Racine, which has a large black population and votes Democratic, Twin Lakes is overwhelmingly white and Republican; Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff to Donald Trump, used to be its village attorney. When Lehman spoke at a Memorial Day parade in Twin Lakes, throwing candy to kids, “few people knew who I was,” he says. When he had listening sessions in the district’s rural areas, nobody showed up. “If you lived out here, would you pay any attention to anything that happened in Racine?” Lehman asks.

In 2014, Lehman decided to run for lieutenant governor instead of trying to win re-election in his new district. “It was unwinnable for a Democrat,” he says. Wanggaard ran again and won by 23 points.

Most of the state Legislature’s Republican majority has been just as secure. In 2012, Obama carried Wisconsin by seven points, and Democratic legislative candidates received 51.4 percent of the statewide vote, but Republican candidates won 60 of 99 seats in the Statehouse. Under the Republican map, the number of safe GOP seats in the 132-member legislature increased from 55 to 69, and the number of swing districts decreased from 24 to 13. It’s a practically foolproof system: No matter what happened nationally, Republicans would maintain control of state politics.

This isn’t just a problem in Wisconsin. Following the 2010 elections, Republicans had full control of the redistricting process for state legislative and U.S. House seats in 21 states, compared with eight states for Democrats. Republicans now hold as many as 22 additional House seats because of gerrymandering, according to an analysis by the Associated Press – nearly the same margin as the 24 seats Democrats need in order to take back the House. During the 2012 elections, Democratic House candidates won 1.4 million more votes nationally than Republicans, but the GOP won 33 more seats. Of course, Democrats have also employed gerrymandering to gain partisan advantage, including in blue states like Illinois and Maryland. But in the past decade Republicans have turned the manipulation of political lines into an art form.

Democrats in Wisconsin went to court to contest these efforts. In November 2016, a federal court panel surprisingly struck down Wisconsin’s state legislative maps as “an unconstitutional political gerrymander” that was “intended to burden the representational rights of Democratic voters . . . by impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats.” Republicans appealed to the Supreme Court, which will rule on the landmark case, Gill v. Whitford, this year. The justices have the chance to outlaw partisan gerrymandering not just in Wisconsin but nationwide, for the first time in American history. “It would be a really big deal for the court to say there’s limits on how far you can go when it comes to partisan gerrymandering,” Holder says. 

Gerrymandering the state’s political boundaries isn’t the only method Republicans in Wisconsin use to prevent Democrats from winning elections. On Election Day 2016, Charisma Townsend, a 24-year-old massage therapist, went to cast her ballot at a library in Milwaukee’s Washington Park, a working-class, predominantly African-American neighborhood northwest of downtown. Voting was important to Townsend. “I try my hardest to make change where I can, and I feel like voting is one of those things that helps you make a change,” she says. And she was eager to vote against Trump, whom she calls “a waste of space for our country.”

But this was Wisconsin’s first major election that required people to show government-issued photo ID to vote. Townsend, who was registered in Wisconsin, had misplaced her driver’s license before the election; she brought her student ID from Milwaukee Area Technical College, a copy of her energy bill and a picture of her driver’s license on her phone. None were accepted as a valid voting ID under the law.

Instead, poll workers gave her a provisional ballot. It would only count if she went to the DMV to get a new license and then to the board of elections to confirm her vote within 72 hours of Election Day. But Townsend worked full-time and couldn’t get away. Having voted for Obama in 2012, she found herself unable to cast a ballot in 2016. “I showed them so many different versions of me,” she says. “I felt like they were trying their hardest for me to not vote.”

Townsend was not alone. After the Legislature passed the law in May 2011, a federal court found that nine percent of registered voters in the state did not have the required forms of ID. Black voters, who overwhelmingly supported Democrats in Wisconsin, were 50 percent more likely than whites to lack such IDs. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, up to 11 percent of Americans do not possess government-issued photo IDs, including 25 percent of African-American voters. “We see these restrictions sprouting up like mushrooms in battleground states with large minority populations,” says Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the ACLU, which challenged Wisconsin’s law in court. “Laws that require you to have a particular ID to cast a ballot disproportionately impact certain groups of voters, particularly poorer voters who don’t have the same access to documentation and IDs as the rest of us.”

Republicans claimed the voter-ID law was needed to stop widespread voter fraud. After Wanggaard lost the recall by 819 votes, his lawyer said election officials in Racine had “used procedures that would make Fidel Castro blush.” Republicans claimed that voter registrations were found in a dumpster, poll books were unsigned and union members were bused from Michigan to vote illegally. “Anyone who argues . . . that we do not need voter ID either wants to conceal these potential fraudulent activities or hasn’t been paying attention,” Wanggaard, who co-sponsored the law, told Vice News. Yet no evidence of fraud turned up when the county sheriff and district attorney, both Republicans, launched a monthlong investigation, nor did Republicans present any cases of voter impersonation when the law was challenged in court. (The law, initially blocked for violating the Voting Rights Act, was reinstated in 2014 by a panel of conservative judges.)

Voter fraud is a very small problem in Wisconsin, and nationally. According to one major study, from 2000 to 2014, there were only 31 cases of voter impersonation out of more than 1 billion votes cast. “Studies show that the kind of fraud that these laws are supposedly enacted to prevent happens less frequently than Americans being struck by lightning,” says Ho.

Even some Republicans have admitted that ID laws help prevent Democrats from voting. On the night of Wisconsin’s 2016 primary, Rep. Glenn Grothman predicted a Republican would carry the state in November, saying, “I think Hillary Clinton is about the weakest candidate the Democrats have ever put up, and now we have photo ID, and I think photo ID is going to make a little bit of a difference.”

The Republican strategy worked as intended. Wisconsin ranked second in the nation in voter participation in 2008 and 2012, but in 2016 saw a 3.3 percent drop in turnout, the largest decrease in voting of any state other than Mississippi. Roughly half of it occurred in Milwaukee. In black neighborhoods, which heavily favored Clinton, turnout decreased by 23 percent. Overall, black turnout dropped by 19 percent in Wisconsin in 2016 compared with 2012, more than four times the national decline among black voters, according to a report by the Center for American Progress.

After the election, registered voters who didn’t cast a ballot in Milwaukee and Madison, the state’s two most Democratic areas, were asked why. One in 10 nonvoters said they were blocked or deterred by the state’s ID law, according to a University of Wisconsin study. That meant up to 23,000 people in two counties alone didn’t show up at least in part because of the ID requirement – almost the exact same number of voters by which Trump won the state. Up to 45,000 people were prevented from voting statewide. African-Americans, who voted for Clinton over Trump by an 88-to-8 margin, were three times more likely than whites to be kept from the polls. “Thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of otherwise eligible people were deterred from voting by the ID law,” said University of Wisconsin political scientist Kenneth Mayer.

That’s why Republicans passed the law in the first place. In a closed-door meeting of the Senate Republican Caucus in 2011, state Sen. Mary Lazich argued in favor of the bill, saying, “We’ve got to think about what this could mean for the neighborhoods around Milwaukee and the college campuses.” According to a Republican aide who attended the meeting, two other state senators were “giddy” and “politically frothing at the mouth” over the bill.

Wisconsin made it particularly difficult for certain Democratic-leaning constituencies to comply with the law. Because of how it was written, only three of 13 four-year schools in the University of Wisconsin system had compliant student IDs, and just seven of 23 private colleges. Nor did the state adequately reach out to the groups most at risk of being disenfranchised: Wisconsin ran ads about the law in 52 movie theaters across the state, but not a single ad in Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s African-Americans live.

Since the 2010 elections, 23 states have adopted new voting restrictions, such as ID laws, cutting early voting, adding new barriers to voter registration, purging the voting rolls and disenfranchising ex-felons – all of which hurt Democrats more than Republicans. It’s no accident that these laws were passed after the election of the first black president in 2008, who was ushered in by the record turnout of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and young voters. “If you look at the timing of these laws in relation to the changing demographics of the electorate, it can’t just be a coincidence,” says the ACLU’s Ho.

In 2013, the Supreme Court compounded the problem by ruling that states with long histories of voting discrimination no longer had to clear new election rules with the federal government. That made the 2016 election the first presidential contest in more than 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, the crown jewel of the civil-rights movement. “It tarnishes the promise that we made to Americans that when they step into the ballot box they are going to be free of racial discrimination,” says Myrna Perez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections project at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Across the country, from Arizona to Ohio to North Carolina, people had trouble voting as a result. According to a study by MIT, an estimated 16 million people – 12 percent of all voters – experienced at least one problem voting in 2016. There were more than 1 million lost votes because eligible voters didn’t have the right ID or they encountered long lines at the polls or couldn’t register. Trump won the election by a combined total of 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Since Trump’s election, Republicans have accelerated their efforts to make it harder to vote. The president’s whopping lie that “millions voted illegally” in 2016 led to the creation of a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which was run by figures like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who have repeatedly spread false claims about voter fraud in order to pass policies that restrict access to the ballot. The commission was abruptly disbanded by Trump in early January after facing 15 federal and state lawsuits for violating a wide range of privacy and transparency laws, stemming from the commission’s unprecedented request for sensitive voter data from all 50 states.

Despite the setback, Trump’s Justice Department has reversed the Obama administration’s opposition to voter-ID laws and voter purging. And Republican-controlled statehouses have passed more new voting restrictions in 2017 than in 2016 and 2015 combined. “It’s not a coincidence that states that were badly gerrymandered during the last round of redistricting, like Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, also passed some of the most oppressive voter-ID laws,” says Holder. “They are two parts of the same attack by the Republicans: They have systematically attacked Americans’ right to vote.”

A sign informs voters of the need for identification at the Olbrich Gardens polling location in Madison, Wis. Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. The Supreme Court election was the only statewide race in Tuesday’s primary, which included scattered county and municipal races. Turnout was projected at only around 10 percent. A photo ID was required to vote, a new requirement stemming from a law first passed in 2011 but eventually put on hold until it was upheld by the state Supreme Court in one of several rulings seen as partisan in recent years.

In January 2010, a conservative majority on the Supreme Court radically rewrote America’s campaign-finance laws to allow mega-donors and corporations to contribute unlimited sums, often in secret, to political action committees. The Citizens United v. FEC decision gave wealthy donors unprecedented influence to buy elections, which Republicans quickly used to their political advantage.

During the recall election between Wanggaard and Lehman in the summer of 2012, voters in Racine received a chilling mailer featuring a man grabbing a woman with his hand over her mouth. you’re not safe. thanks to john lehman, said the front of the mailer. The back illustration showed a man in a black hoodie, with the line home invasions. theft. homicide. do the crime. don’t serve the time. The mailer, delivered to 10,000 homes in Racine, was authored by the Republican State Leadership Committee, which raised $30 million ahead of the 2010 elections and spent $1.1 million of it in Wisconsin. Thanks to the Citizens United decision, the RSLC could accept unlimited donations from corporate interests like Koch Industries and tobacco companies to attack Lehman for voting for a state budget that allowed felons to be released early for good behavior or health issues. With clear racial overtones, the mailer was sent just months after Trayvon Martin’s murder in Florida. “It’s the meanest mailer I’ve ever seen,” Lehman told HuffPost.

Scott Walker took this fundraising strategy to new heights when he faced his own recall election in 2012. Walker had long been close to GOP billionaires like Charles and David Koch, who gave $9 million to Walker and his allies between 2010 and 2014. “We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin,” David Koch said in February 2012. “We are going to spend a lot more.” The Kochs and other like-minded conservative donors made Wisconsin their guinea pig for destroying the progressive movement, funding a sprawling network of foundations, think tanks, media organizations and political groups that propped up Walker and the state’s Republican majority.

Walker asked a major fundraiser in September 2011 how he could raise enough money to survive the recall, despite intense public opposition to his full-scale attack on unions, the number-one funder and organizing ally of Democrats. “Corporations. Go heavy after them to give,” wrote his fundraiser Kate Doner. “Take Koch’s money. Get on a plane to Vegas and sit down with Sheldon Adelson. Ask for $1m now.”

Walker did just that, but instead of raising money for his campaign, he steered wealthy donors, including Trump, to the pro-business Wisconsin Club for Growth, which was run by Republican operative Eric O’Keefe. Sometimes called the “third Koch brother,” O’Keefe was national field coordinator for the Libertarian Party in 1980 when David Koch was the party’s vice presidential candidate. Unlike Walker’s campaign, Wisconsin Club for Growth could accept unlimited donations and didn’t have to disclose its donors. “The Governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth [which] can accept Corporate and Personal donations without limitations and no donors disclosure,” wrote Doner. (The e-mails were released by The Guardian.) Walker’s fundraising spree gave the governor and his allies a huge advantage over his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett – $58.7 million to $21.9 million – and he easily won the recall by seven points.

His donors received a generous return on their investment. Between April 2011 and January 2012, Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, whose company manufactured lead paint, a known danger for developing children, gave three checks totaling $750,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth. Walker’s adviser warned him about Simmons’ background in a “red flag” e-mail. “We should discuss this so you are aware of what you might need to defend in terms of contributions from donors when these are disclosed,” wrote Walker’s aide Keith Gilkes. “Harold Simmons has consistently been a target of environmentalists. One of the most immediate issues was that NL Industries (purchased by Simmons in 1986) was the leading maker of lead pigment paint.”

After Walker’s recall election, in June 2013, Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature inserted a late-night provision into a budget bill that blocked Wisconsin residents from suing manufacturers like Simmons for lead poisoning. It was among the 100 “worst” pieces of legislation passed during Walker’s tenure, according to a 2016 Wisconsin Democracy Campaign report. The Legislature also changed the definition of “lead-bearing paint” to allow greater amounts of lead, and reduced state lead-paint inspections.

But Walker had a big problem: It was illegal for his campaign to directly coordinate with outside groups like Wisconsin Club for Growth. A special prosecutor opened an investigation alleging a “criminal scheme” between Walker and his outside allies. Conducted in secret, it was known as a “John Doe” investigation. The probe implicated the highest echelons of Walker’s inner circle, until the investigation was abruptly shut down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in July 2015. Justices are elected in Wisconsin, and the court’s four conservative judges, who had a majority, had received $8 million in outside support from the very groups under investigation, like Wisconsin Club for Growth.

Following the decision, the Republican Legislature launched an unprecedented attack on the state’s campaign-finance system. It doubled the amount donors could give to candidates; allowed corporations to give directly to political parties; authorized outside groups to coordinate with political candidates on “issue advocacy” (the very thing Walker was under investigation for); exempted donors from disclosing where they worked; prevented future John Doe investigations from focusing on political crimes like bribery and misconduct in office; and dismantled the state’s watchdog agency. Wanggaard co-sponsored the bill curtailing John Doe investigations, which he said were “like 1939 Germany.” The bills passed in the middle of the night on November 7th, 2015. “It was just a systematic destruction of the good-government democracy that Wisconsin had enjoyed up to the election of Scott Walker and the Republicans,” says Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin.

Nationally, $3 billion in outside money has been spent since the Citizens United decision, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with at least $800 million of it from entities that don’t have to disclose their donors (hence the term “dark money”). In 2017, Walker was head of the Republican Governors Association, which can accept unlimited contributions. In the first half of that year, the organization brought in a record haul of $36 million, $15 million more than Democrats. The Koch brothers have already pledged to spend $400 million on 2018 races.

Of course, this money doesn’t just help elect Republicans, it dictates their legislative priorities. Before the release of the tax bill, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan invited Corry Bliss, head of the American Action Network Super PAC, to address a closed-door meeting of the House GOP caucus. Bliss previewed an ad campaign in support of the tax overhaul (the group plans to spend $100 million backing the Republican agenda). The message was clear: Support the bill and you’ll be rewarded. Don’t and you’ll be targeted. “Like a teacher showing the kids a paddle on the first day of class, the blatant implication was that those who misbehaved would be spanked,” one member of Congress told HuffPost. (The Koch brothers’ political network chipped in another $20 million for tax reform.)

The tax bill was a shameless giveaway to the wealthiest Americans. Eighty-three percent of the benefits will go to the top one percent by 2027, according to the Tax Policy Center. The bill is deeply unpopular, with only a third of the public approving of it. But Republicans admitted they passed it because their donors told them to. “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again,’ ” said Rep. Chris Collins of New York.

I visited Wisconsin a few days after the Senate passed its version of the tax bill. A dozen of Paul Ryan’s constituents were holding a protest in downtown Racine. “Help! Need Cash to Buy Paul Ryan,” one sign said. Cars drove by honking their horns in support. The window of Ryan’s district office was covered with signs and colorful Post-it notes protesting the tax bill: “Paul Ryan steals from the poor, disabled and our vets to give to the ultrarich,” read one. “You care only about donors, not voter[s]!” said another.

Van Wanggaard talks with supporters Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, as Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos, and state Rep. Samantha Kerkman congratulate him during an election night party in Dover, Wis. Wanggaard, of Racine, was running against Jonathan Steitz in the Republican primary for the seat being vacated by John Lehman.

Despite these Republican advantages, the end of 2017 brought good news for Democrats. In November, the party won the Virginia governor’s race and picked up a surprising 15 seats in the state’s House of Delegates. A month later, Democrat Doug Jones won a shocking upset over Roy Moore in a special election for the U.S. Senate in Alabama. Democrats are now favored to win control of the House in 2018 and have a shot at taking back the Senate. The tide is even turning in Wisconsin, where in early January 2018 Democrats won a special election by 10 points for a state Senate district that Trump won by 17 points and Republicans had held since 2000. It was the Democrats’ 34th pickup of the 2018 cycle.

The lower courts have already signaled a willingness to push back on unfair redistricting. On January 9th, a federal court struck down North Carolina’s U.S. House map, which gives Republicans a 10-to-three advantage over Democrats, the first time a federal court has invalidated congressional lines for partisan gerrymandering. But on January 18th, the Supreme Court blocked the redrawing of North Carolina’s maps, pending appeal. GOP-drawn districts have also been struck down in Alabama, Florida, Virginia and Texas. Many of these rulings are similarly being appealed by Republicans, making it unlikely such districts will be redrawn before the 2018 elections. After this story went to press, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s Congressional maps – which give Republicans a 13 to 5 advantage – and ordered they be redrawn in 2018, boosting Democratic prospects in the state.

Even the recent Democratic victories foreshadow some of the problems the party may face in 2018. In Alabama, Jones defeated Moore by 1.5 percentage points but carried only one of seven congressional districts. In Virginia, Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates won 224,000 more votes than Republicans but were still denied a majority. A Virginia-like result would produce few gains for Democrats in more heavily gerrymandered states like Wisconsin. Democrats need to win 57 percent of the statewide vote there, an almost impossible number, to take back the state Legislature in 2018, says Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

Nationally, Democrats must win the popular vote for the House of Representatives by eight points to get a bare majority of seats. That might be doable given the unpopularity of Trump, but Democrats still worry about facing a rigged system. “If you have a wave election in 2018, it’s entirely possible Democrats could win a significantly greater number of votes and not have the Congress that reflects that wave,” says Holder. And that’s not how democracy is supposed to work. Hanging in the balance are basic rights for millions of Americans – the right to vote, the right to fair representation, the right to not have elections auctioned to the highest bidder. Welcome to the 2018 election season.

Ari Berman is a senior writer at Mother Jones, a reporting fellow at The Nation Institute, and author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America

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