Reading the Maps

Let’s start by giving Gov. Tony Evers’ People’s Maps Commission its due. It fulfilled its assignment. The commission produced new legislative maps that were fair in the sense that they were drawn in compliance with current legal standards, and more or less blindly to partisan advantage. 

And while the products themselves (three sets of maps were produced) are likely to meet a dead end, they provide something valuable even if they’re ignored by both Republicans, who will produce their own gerrymandered maps, and the courts, which will almost certainly wind up deciding the issue. 

That valuable thing is a clear message to Democrats: You can’t win if you go on like this. 

Well, to be more accurate, Democrats can and do win statewide races. In fact, they’ve won 10 of the last 11. But they simply cannot win legislative majorities or a majority of the state’s House seats even with fair maps, except in the rare Democratic wave years. And, of course, without majorities in the Assembly and state Senate, they can’t actually get much of anything done. 

One version of the People’s Maps Commission Assembly district maps. No matter how you cut it, Republicans have a built-in advantage.

Under the People’s Maps Commission scenarios, Republicans would maintain healthy margins in both houses of the Legislature, except in the case of a rare Democratic landslide. In typical election years the Assembly Republicans would have numbers in the mid-50s out of 99 seats and about 18 or 19 Senate districts would advantage Republican candidates out of a total of 33. 

Here’s a simple way to break it down. In the last 14 cycles Republicans have gotten about 50 percent of the total vote for all Assembly candidates. But under the Republicans’ heavily gerrymandered maps they now hold 60 percent of those seats. Under the People’s Maps Commission plan they would get about 55 percent, essentially splitting the difference between total votes and the gerrymandered maps. 

So, how can it be that a party that barely gets half the votes would still have comfortable majorities? 

It has to do with two things. The first is that partisan competitiveness is not a legal criteria for drawing districts. The legal standards have to do with trying to maintain communities of interests, trying to avoid splitting municipalities, trying to keep districts compact and paying attention to districts that could be won by racial minorities. 

The second reason has to do with how we sort ourselves on the landscape. Democrats cluster in cities while Republicans spread themselves out over suburbs and rural areas. So it’s impossible to draw maps that are politically diverse and competitive unless that is an explicit goal, which as pointed out above, it is not, at least as a legal matter. 

The inescapable conclusion is that if the Democrats ever want to regain legislative majorities they can’t just focus on urban liberals. Instead, they have to find ways to reconnect to small town, suburban and rural voters. And this inconvenient truth isn’t just my opinion. Progressive number cruncher extraordinaire David Shor, who is closely followed by no less a person than Barack Obama, takes the same view.

There was a time, not so long ago, when moderate to conservative Democrats won in parts of the state where the party brand is now completely trashed. Joe Andrea, Marv Roshell, Roger Breske, Jerry Van Sistine, Mary Hubler, Barbara Gronemus and Rod Moen are just a sampling of Democratic legislators who held down districts that leaned conservative. Jim Holperin and Lynn Adelman are two more, though they were exceptional for being pretty progressive and yet finding a way to connect to more conservative voters. But that kind of Democrat has pretty much been driven from the party.

The “Party of Dane County” can squeak out statewide wins by running up huge numbers and margins here, but it can’t take back the Legislature that way. For that it needs to bring an endangered species back from the brink of extinction: the moderate Democrat. 

A version of this post originally appeared in Isthmus.

Welcome to the 236th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Reading the Maps

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