Republicans and the Purple Crayon: How to Fix Partisan Gerrymandering in Wisconsin and Elsewhere

By Tom ZoellnerFebruary 22, 2023

Republicans and the Purple Crayon: How to Fix Partisan Gerrymandering in Wisconsin and Elsewhere
FOR MODERN ART masterpieces of the early 21st century, future historians might look to the postindustrial city of Janesville, Wisconsin, as an inspiration. The 44th Legislative District that surrounds the city is an eye-popping triumph of design, strangely beautiful in its ugliness. It appears as an irregular squiggle around the city’s core, poked and perforated by dozens of incursions against its linear integrity — little 100-yard raids here and there by the neighboring districts, pecking away not for birdseed but for the homes of known Republican votes.

Sophisticated map-drawing software has allowed lawmakers to take cynical aesthetics to new levels. While this practice happens in almost every state, Wisconsin is routinely cited as the capital of gerrymandering — “some of the most extreme partisan gerrymanders in the United States,” according to Princeton University political scientists. On November 8, 2022, voters re-elected Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, by a convincing margin. Those same voters also kept Republicans in control of both the state assembly and its senate.

How can such an illogical result be possible? Look closer at the maps. There are telltale fringes around every city, like blurry lines in a photograph, as if each town were slightly in motion when the shutter clicked. This is the conservative legislature’s attempt to pack as many Democrats as possible into sacrifice districts while keeping the bulk of seats for itself via the rural base, plucking out thousands of its own from the suburbs, like commandos on a rescue mission. In West Appleton, for instance, the 55th district creeps along Second Street to snatch up a single Republican household, but then leaves a car-towing emporium for the Democrats. Nearby, it grabs four houses on the east side of Olson Avenue, along with a retreat owned by the Sisters of Saint Dominic, while ignoring the rest.

Gerrymandering, it is said, lets politicians pick their voters instead of letting voters pick their politicians. It has been a commonplace trick in American politics at least since Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts manipulated an Essex County district to look, critics said, like a bizarre salamander, ensuring a legislative disadvantage for Federalists in the highly partisan year of 1812. Then, as now, maps were the key to gaming people’s living patterns for maximum effect, since groups with common political interests — merchants, working people, ethnic minorities, bluebloods, managers, the unemployed — tend to live near each other.

The difference today is that vague suppositions about the character of a given neighborhood can be refined to a frightening degree — literally house by house — with sophisticated mapping software like GIS Plus or Caliper Corporation’s Maptitude, whose makers conduct lucrative business with political parties. Such mapping has the power to pluck and discard handfuls of targeted voters with a keystroke, as was done in West Appleton and thousands of other places on the raggedy Wisconsin map.

On the surface, there seems to be no way around the map problem. States like Arizona have sought to source the job to independent redistricting commissions made up of carefully determined boards with numerically partisan parity but have still seen the kinds of horse-trading and strong-arming that result in unequal boundaries. Bad-faith maps seem as inevitable as death and taxes. The Supreme Court said in Baker v. Carr in 1962 that states are required to follow the “one person, one vote” rule, and fair maps are seemingly the only route toward that goal.

But what if there were an elegant solution that sought not to trash the maps or even improve their boundaries but rather to implement a method of representational democracy that would make them utterly irrelevant?

The idea is called weighted voting. It has been a staple of corporate governance for centuries. The more shares you own in the company, the more votes you get on the board. It could easily be tried in political venues, and, in fact, 24 counties in New York State have been using it since the 1960s to make sure that residents’ power is distributed equally among the population.

In 2021, an investment manager from Appleton, Mark Scheffler, looked with despair on the illogical maps as he was contemplating a run for state senate and wondered to himself if the New York method might be tried at the state level in Wisconsin.

Here is a good time to disclose that I’ve known Scheffler since our college days at Lawrence University. He was a thoughtful and self-effacing soul back then, and he remains one today. He gave up his campaign for Senate, but he hasn’t given up on the idea of trying to change this fundamental dysfunction in how Wisconsin elects its representatives. What he’d like to see is an elected representative casting a vote in the legislature that doesn’t tally as a single vote but rather as a unit representing a fraction of the registered partisans in the whole state.

Sound confusing? You’re not alone in feeling that way. The major problem with weighted voting is that, while beautifully efficient, it’s hard to easily explain to the average citizen, even to those educated in math and politics. Here is Scheffler’s attempt: “Let’s say there are 100 people in a bar that has only one keg. There are 48 people wearing red shirts carrying big glasses and they get to pour 65 percent of the beer for themselves. So, all that’s left for the 52 people in blue shirts is 35 percent of the beer. The way to fix this is to see that the people in red have smaller glasses.”

In this Wisconsin-appropriate analogy, the keg represents the 99 seats in the assembly, the red shirts are the Republicans (smaller in number but with more voting clout), the Democrats are the bigger group that gets shafted, and the “smaller glasses” would be the apportionment of each Republican vote in the legislature as not a single vote but a percentage of all the registered Republican citizens in the entire state. So, the smaller bloc gets to speak for all those citizens throughout Wisconsin, not just for those packed into awkward blocs here and there to produce manipulated outcomes that tend to favor extremist candidates.

The vote-tabulating computers in the legislature would be programmed at the beginning of the session to give a Republican’s vote a weighted value of .85, to reflect the total of the statewide vote for that party. All the Democrats — representing slightly higher numbers of Wisconsinites — would get votes worth 1.15.

Scheffler goes on: “The size of the glasses — the votes — are recalculated every two years, and any adjustments are made to reflect changes in the power given to each party by the voters. It’s a perfect system for fairly allocating power according to who wins the contest — the election.”

While this may seem to violate a long-standing perception of representative democracy that one person should have one vote, it actually honors that principle by giving a fractional vote in the legislature to each politician elected through insanely twisted mapping.

This could require changing the state constitution. But that is not an inconceivable bar to clear. The last time voters did this via statewide referendum was in 2020, to add crime-victim rights to the document. Scheffler encountered enough anger during his brief time on the campaign trail to convince him that bold action was necessary to neuter the power of dishonest map-drawing. “I would ask people at the farmer’s market one simple question,” he said. “If your party wins 52 percent of the statewide vote, how much of a vote should they get in the legislature? Then it starts to make sense. If this went to a nonbinding state referendum, it would pass overwhelmingly.”

Scheffler did not start out wanting to be a political reformer. He became a music teacher after college and spent three years in Kenosha seeing the scars of segregation up close: McKinley Junior High served two demographics, literally separated by a railroad track. One side was populated by white families, mainly commuting to jobs in the far northern suburbs of Chicago. The other side had more Black and Latino families, trying to cope with a shrinking employment base and inadequate policing. He moved to Menasha with his then-wife, failed to find another teaching job, and went into managing individual investment portfolios for lack of any better ideas. He got to know the nonprofits in the Fox Valley and learned a lot about how collective decisions are made, plus the value of flexible strategies. He also learned the limits of idealism.

After declaring his candidacy for the state senate in 2021, with the aim of addressing the legislature’s dysfunctional culture, he became dismayed by the maps’ pernicious effects. Campaigning from the center right or left was not a winning strategy. A candidate had to be loud and angry to get attention.

He pulled the plug on his run after the leaked draft of the Dobbs abortion decision hit the press. Scheffler reasoned that a female senator would be in a far better position to navigate the trouble to come.

The experience left him both exhausted and determined to think of a better way to create a statewide leadership structure. “We have a proud progressive tradition in this state going back to the early 1900s and Bob La Follette,” he told me. “If Wisconsin actually fixed gerrymandering, I think every state in the country would do the same. It would be a seismic shift in the way that power is allocated — a gut punch to the power structure.”

You could even make an originalist argument in favor of weighted voting. Though gerrymandering has been a part of American tradition since the 19th century, the authors of Wisconsin’s state constitution consciously sought to avoid its abuses. They viewed county shapes as the primary building blocks for districts and required the legislature to draw new lines, “bounded by county, precinct, town or ward lines, to consist of contiguous territory and be in as compact form as practicable,” after the decennial federal census results.

James Madison had observed a century before that no government would be necessary if all people were angels. The angels did not show up to draw the maps. Partisan fun with lines began almost as soon as the constitutional ink dried, and this manipulation went on for decades, prompting one of the nation’s first big gerrymandering opinions on the state level. In 1892’s State ex rel. Attorney General v. Cunningham, Justice Silas Pinney admonished both parties to observe county borders as much as possible, saying the harm of grotesque districts affects “no one particular class of people or locality, but all the people of the state.” But then the court generally retreated from decisions that told the legislature how to act for the next 70 years.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured that creative mapmaking could not be aimed at a protected category of ethnicity, even though this is at the root of most modern gerrymandering. So, parties had to pretend that the bizarre lines were about something other than race. By 2010, the tradition was so solid it may as well have been written into the US Constitution itself, according to legal historian Joseph A. Ranney. “Legislative leaders used sophisticated statistical programs to analyze the partisan leanings of every ward, town, and village in the state and to create a map that equalized population but drew boundaries so as to maximize the number of ‘safe’ and ‘likely’ Republican seats,” he wrote. “The plan worked: In 2012, Republican candidates won 49 percent of the total vote for Assembly but 60 percent of Assembly seats, and later elections produced similar gaps.”

That’s roughly where we are today, statistically and politically. The days when conservative rural voters would vote for Republican presidents and then split down-ballot tickets to favor competent Democrats are over. Nationalized politics runs everything, and partisan identities are totalizing.

I was in the audience with Scheffler and the rest of the senior class for Lawrence University’s 1991 commencement when our president, Richard Warch, gave us some benedictory thoughts. Usually, these ceremonial proceedings are full of high-flown claptrap, but Warch was a different breed of president. Our education was supposed to have made us “question answers as much as answer questions.” Scheffler took that advice to heart in his career as a financial manager, and it helped him stay clear of bad investments that seemed like a sure thing. He sees the similar folly of Wisconsin’s legislative maps, bound to create an angry state in which few will want to invest.

Could his weighted voting idea take the evil out of mapmaking? He thinks it’s at least worthy of putting in front of the electorate for a fair hearing, even though it may involve some initial head-scratching when you explain that the person a voter sends to Madison won’t be making a singular vote in the assembly or senate but a fractional token that represents a crystallization of total party strength statewide. It’s an elegant solution that a technocrat could love, which is also the major problem with it.

If Wisconsin voters are able to amend the constitution in their favor, it would put the state closer to a European parliamentary model, said Craig Gilbert, a fellow at Marquette University’s Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education. Gilbert, who spent 35 years as a close-up observer of state politics in his career at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, authored one of the best analyses of segregated voting patterns ever to run in an American newspaper, the 2014 series “Dividing Lines.”

Gilbert considers the idea intriguing, even if difficult to quickly explain from a barstool. In a parliamentary system, “you’re voting for a party tasked with putting a government together,” which is partly what weighted voting is designed to do: hand power to the consensus majority. It would also end the debilitating phenomenon of “wasted votes,” which is what happens every election to Dane County Republicans. They would no longer feel that their votes, even for a doomed candidate, are hopeless because those votes would still boost the statewide marker for how all Republican votes will be tallied in the legislature for the next two years.

The unhappiness with the 2022 maps, with all their gear teeth and saw points, is certain to grow even stronger, Gilbert said, as the “WOW counties” of suburban Milwaukee (Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington) grow more diverse and drift further away from Republicans, making even more extreme gerrymandering necessary to keep a GOP majority in the legislature. “They will have to go even further west to find their voters,” he said.

Though weighted voting would be hard to explain to most citizens, which may preclude a statewide referendum, University of Wisconsin–Madison political scientist Barry Burden suggests that it may not require that step because the legislature is authorized to set its own terms for how it counts votes in chamber. A flurry of lawsuits would certainly follow, but Burden said he was reasonably sure that such a proposal would work on the federal level to correct for the organic gerrymander of the United States Senate, where a vote from sparsely populated Wyoming is infamously equal to a vote from people-packed California.

“It would not require a change in the US Constitution because the Senate can implement any voting rule that it likes,” he said. “That’s where the filibuster comes from. That’s not in the Constitution.”

Scheffler’s proposal would set the United States on a path toward “proportional representation,” the model in most European democracies. And it would help alleviate the problem of minority voters who live in lopsided districts simply giving up on civic participation because they never get results. “They feel like there’s not much worth voting for,” Scheffler said. “It would be a be a real culture change.”

Scheffler knows he is fighting against a long and dishonorable tradition of gaming the maps to generate a predetermined outcome. But the current situation has become so bad that it may require bold action — not incremental tinkering with existing dysfunction — to make Madison more responsive to what the people actually want. “Despite all hope in Wisconsin that a fair map could be drawn and adopted, it has been a fool’s errand,” he said. “We ask too much of legislative maps — we ask them to allocate representation fairly, and we ask them to fairly allocate legislative power. In both regards, maps fail.”

Wisconsin’s practitioners of abstract political artwork have full control over their own insane penmanship for the time being, and ideas to break that stranglehold remain on the fringes. But Burden points to another historic corrupt practi ce that met its end in Wisconsin. Back in 1904, La Follette grew tired of statewide bosses hand-selecting their own candidates, so he forced the Republican Party to let voters pick their candidates in a primary election several months before the general election. The tyranny of the local fat cats back then seemed as permanent as the tyranny of the maps in today’s climate. And yet, within a few years, the era of the smoke-filled room was over.

“Direct primaries were a crazy idea for the time,” said Burden. “And now they’re used widely throughout the United States.”


Tom Zoellner is the politics editor for Los Angeles Review of Books.


Featured image: Stephen Magrath, Neuronal synapse. Wellcome Collection., CC0. Accessed February 1, 2023. 

LARB Contributor

Tom Zoellner is an editor-at-large at LARB and a professor of English at Chapman University. He is the author of eight nonfiction books, including The Heartless Stone, Uranium, The National Road, Rim to River, and Island on Fire, which won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Bancroft Prize in history.


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