Wednesday, November 14, 2018


By Dominique Paul Noth

More than a week after the midterm elections, it is the Democrats who want to keep the count going to confirm the  heady size of the  Blue Wave . . . in the rest of the nation.

The 1812 political cartoon that gave birth to
the term gerrymandering
In Wisconsin it was blue frosting atop a dark gerrymander cake.  The state proved that on the top  it is Democratic, electing every statewide Democratic candidate plus giving Tammy Baldwin the largest victory margin in the US Senate. Yet underneath it looked like North Dakota.

Sad as that is to report it remains factual.  In the top blue frosting, there may well be a potent template for the future in governor and attorney general, but it is criminally slowed down by a legislative field established by years of successful cheating by Republicans, quietly allowed by voters in most of the state’s 72 counties. 

Never forget that and brace for more of the same in 2020 unless the courts or new action in the US Congress change things, both possibilities long shots. The Democrats, with   nearly 40 seats won from Republicans in the House,  now have the power to challenge Trump and offer exciting bills.  But Wisconsin will not be at the forefront of change, and we’d better get used to that.

Along with eight new Democratic governors,  the turnaround in statehouses was massive – fully 300 statehouse seats changed to Democrats. In Wisconsin and by virtue of absentee ballots recorded a day after the election, only one Assembly seat turned blue – Robyn Vining in AD (Assembly District) 14. One Senate seat that went blue in the lower turnout August election went back to red – in Door County!

And while the US House now boasts a nearly 100 seat lead in favor of  the Democrats, assuring many new proposals starting in January, not a single House seat in Wisconsin flipped or even came close.  At that level we look like Tennessee.  In terms of clout, we have to rely on Tony Evers, Mandela Barnes and Josh Kaul to figure out something.

That is truly bizarre because in case after case it was clear to all voters that the Democrats had better candidates – anyone want to argue against Dan Kohl over Glenn Grothman, Margaret Engebretson over Sean Duffy?

Bryan Steil over Randy Bryce in CD1 was a combination of gerrymandering and vicious successful third party advertising that painted Bryce as a much arrested union thug. I think both union image and arrest record played a dismaying role.  Steil not only had Paul Ryan’s money and support, he looked enough like Ryan to confuse people. So there are complexities in that lopsided race beyond the gerry-snake.

On the Internet an accurate chart has been making the rounds, indicating how many more Democratic voters the Wisconsin Assembly races got and yet how they remained red because of the maps drawn in secret with Republican attorneys in 2011. To put the chart simply, in 2018 Democrats  got 54% of vote yet only  36 seats while Republicans got 45% of the vote and 63 seats.

This is an ingrained problem that has been written about for years by perceptive journalists (insert appropriate pat-self-on-the-back emoji).  Looking through my files, in 2013 I discussed how hard right-wing money was stepping in to support gerrymandering in state legislative races that the localities were not even aware of.  In another story I speculated on why a completely superior candidate even by Republican measures could still lose in suburbs like Franklin.

The voting public is responsible for this, but apparently does not have the level of education or interest to dig inside a five syllable word to understand mapping.  That led even the Washington Post to provide a simply mathematical breakdown of how clever gerrymandering can turn natural competitive districts into lopsided ones based on miniscule voting patterns. Study that explanation for a moment and even the mathematically challenged will understand how expensive lawyers working with in-depth voting charts could tilt your assembly and state senate district to confound the best citizen candidates.

And we had them in 2018.  The most painful loss was state Senate District 5 where Julie Henszey came about one thousand votes shy (mainly the gerrymander) of putting Dale Kooyenga on the same shelf as Leah Vukmir (who did so poorly against  Baldwin). 

Don’t expect Henszey to go away but don’t expect her to run again unless the map becomes fair. And that is the attitude from several candidates. They flogged themselves and their supporters in door to door campaigns that looked good while Republican incumbents dodged discussion of issues and relied on tried and proven advertising techniques. And to our regret as a state, relying on voter ignorance worked.  Under these maps, Democrats would have to pull 20% above their actual weight to win seats.

Some of the losers gave up good jobs to run and they deserve to be back in the mix.  But until the map changes, don’t expect Dennis McBride to run again in Assembly District 13, nor Liz Sumner to take on Fred Ott in AD 23, nor Emily Siegrist to tackle Dan Knodl in AD24 – all strong races on paper that had enthusiastic backers.

One thing that has weakened gerrymandering in other states – with a difficulty the courts should still step in to fix --  is a  pronounced new flow of populations and information. That’s been particularly true in urban areas but harder to achieve in entrenched GOP suburban cul de sacs and in more rural states like Wisconsin. Some sociologists think isolated family voters tend to reinforce each others’ preferences and biases generation after generation.

Now even that is changing, thanks to the needs of farmers for imported immigrant laborers who put down roots; by the nature of small business manufacturing along with the movement of big companies and the “service industry” units;  by living patterns where isolation or size of lot is not as important to a resident as such factors as schools, hospitals, environment and education.

There are citizens in this country who don’t think much about politics until it impacts their living standards, which Trump’s policies are starting to do.  Simplistics about law and order and lingering confusions about taxes are slow to dissipate. 

On the local legislative level, the high involvement in the midterm – a staggering 49% of eligible voters nationally, more than in any midterm since WWI! – reflects a growing awareness reaching far beyond the politically attuned regulars to involve more families, more young people concerned about their future, more people forced to face up to  how and where they get their information.  All that is somewhat muddied by the noise of our technology and splintering sense of unity.

Changes will not happen overnight and changes are never clean.  Most people don’t remember back to 2012 how two South Side Milwaukee Latino districts were protected by a federal court, while the rest of the questionable 2011 maps proceeded willy-nilly. What progressives perceived then as a victory still took six years to create change at the top and nearly nothing down below.

Trump followers desperately need to slow things down, one reason for all the fury about counting real votes in Florida and Georgia.  They  realize that unless they expand their numbers quickly  they are dying out -- that may actually be the underlying fear that motivates them and Trump. 

Likely new Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants the House’s first focus to be on voting issues – rights, gerrymandering, campaign finance, accountability – and there could be widespread support.  Along with protecting pre-existing health conditions, these issues have deep public impetus behind them.

Eric Holder and Barack Obama’s NDRC  organization – the National Democratic Redistricting Committee –  is not only taking the gerrymandering issue national but is also raising money and attention for nonpartisan redistricting. The pressure for improvement keeps building on several fronts.

After North Carolina, Wisconsin is next up in the gate for the US Supreme Court, which has temporarily turned back  to a three member federal panel a technical issue involving legitimate  complainants.  That struck many observers as a signal of interest when SCOTUS  could have simply shut the door.  

The case comes up again in April for the federal judicial  panel – and it now has the frighteningly universal results of the 2018 election to add in as evidence.

That case continues with the elimination of a blindly loyal Republican attorney general, Brad Schimel – replaced on Nov. 6 by Josh Kaul, who has made no secret that he will return his department to more legal responsibility as opposed to partisan leanings.  All this led the appeals court to allow Assembly  Republicans to hire their own private lawyers to pursue the case, which also releases pressure on Kaul to blindly support the maps as Schimel did.

There seems little doubt with the added evidence of the 2018 election, SCOTUS will have to take this case up after it deals with North Carolina, also a state under censure from a judicial panel.

The plaintiffs believe that, having solved the legal concerns raised by SCOTUS, they have a strong case that could force the court to provide new maps – whether in time for the 2020 fall election is unclear.  SCOTUS could find a way to punt again.

Expert minds are mulling the situation and raising simple questions.  Is it possible for Wisconsin to rejoin the rest of the nation it seems to agree with? Or will the gerrymander strike again in 2020?

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.  

1 comment: