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Benjamin Rangel is a high school government teacher at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School Milwaukee. He represents the Fourth Congressional District on the People’s Maps Commission. He also serves as the managing editor of Bridge the City, a local podcast whose mission is to bridge together people, resources and ideas that inspire Milwaukee to action.
When I applied to serve on Gov. Tony Evers’ People’s Maps Commission, I did so on a bit of a whim. Because I am a high school American government teacher and student of political science, the issue of partisan gerrymandering has consistently been one of the issues that shocked me and my students.
How could we call ourselves a representative democracy when representation is so clearly manipulated for political gain?
For instance, here in Milwaukee, our local political leaders have pleaded with state legislators in Madison for a fair and democratic budget process. Every alderperson and state representative from our area will tell you the same thing – Madison has flatlined the state’s shared revenue fund allocated to our city. Furthermore, the state restricts our city’s ability to add new sources of revenue.
This is where gerrymandering comes into the picture. Currently, the state legislative districts are drawn in such a way that although Democrats have won a majority of votes throughout the state, they have remained in the minority in the Legislature. In other words, Milwaukee’s representation in state government, and its ability to support itself financially, is impossible with partisan gerrymandering.
However, there may be a solution. Over the past six months, my belief in the American experiment and democracy has been reaffirmed month-after-month and I have hope that our work will be essential to the redistricting process in the coming months.
Throughout the last six months, our commission has heard from some of the country’s leading experts on partisan gerrymandering. For instance, Former Attorney General Eric Holder shared why a fair redistricting process is essential to representation in one of our early hearings. Similarly, Dr. Moon Duchin, a professor of mathematics at Tufts University, has partnered with our commission to help facilitate Wisconsinites drawing their own maps and identifying communities of interest.
Beyond the expert consensus that partisan gerrymandering is a threat to American representative government, it has been you all, the everyday residents of Wisconsin, who have truly inspired me and reaffirmed my belief in government.
After every hearing we have conducted, I leave feeling inspired and recommitted to our work. One of the most common things we hear is “voters should choose their representative, instead of representatives choosing their voters.” This observation has become a sort of truism during our hearings, and for good reason.
In 2011, following the last census count and led by the Republican Legislature, redistricting in Wisconsin was done in secret at a private law firm. Court proceedings and investigative journalists, using computer algorithms, have shown that congressional and state legislative districts were redrawn in a way that overwhelmingly advantaged Republicans.
For instance, in the 2018 election Democrats and Republicans essentially split the vote across the state but the Republicans won a 63-36 majority in the 99-seat legislature.
During the last redistricting process, Republican state legislators were called into the offices to comment and provide feedback on how their district might be redrawn. Based on that feedback, and in order to mathematically advantage Republicans as best as possible, the maps were redrawn. In other words, the legislators picked their voters.
Although the process that played out in Wisconsin benefited Republicans, Democrats are certainly not innocent in this story. Democrats in Wisconsin in 2009, with control of both chambers and the governorship, had the opportunity to pass legislation that required a nonpartisan, independent redistricting process. During our hearing in the 1st Congressional District, longtime Democrat Peter Barca shared that the political will simply wasn’t there. Furthermore, other Democratically controlled legislatures around the country have participated in partisan gerrymandering.
One thing is clear: Both parties are guilty of drawing the maps in favor of their political party rather than their constituents. It is no wonder why referendums across the state, in Republican and Democratic counties, have passed in favor of an independent process. Few things nowadays get overwhelming bipartisan support — nonpartisan redistricting is the exception.
Finally, what about Milwaukee? Some have argued that the partisan makeup of our geography disenfranchises big cities. The line goes that Democrats have self-selected to live in the cities and so have gerrymandered themselves. However, expert testimony during our hearings disputes that and testimony in the District Court Case of Gill V. Whitford mathematically proved it wrong.
Instead, the votes and voices of Milwaukeeans who have been over-packed in certain legislative districts in and around the city and those who have been cracked into districts surrounding the city are severely diluted. In turn, as we have heard time and time again from public testimony, dilution means a less responsive and more partisan government.
First, representatives are unresponsive. Because the districts are drawn in such a way that many elected officials never have any real competition, they don’t fear losing re-election. This means they no longer have to be accountable to their constituencies.
Second, representatives are more frequently coming from the political extremes. Because candidates have no real competition in the general elections, the fight for a seat starts in the primary. Primary voters tend to be more partisan. Furthermore, primary elections have far lower voter turnout. In some state legislative districts, partisan gerrymandering means fewer than 15% of the electorate and only the electorate of one political party are choosing their representative.
Overall, any legislation that you would like to see at the state level that includes compromise or a democratic voice, is unlikely without fair maps. Partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin means one-party rule that is unresponsive and unrepresentative of the voters throughout the state. Currently, our primary source of hope to overcome this assault on democracy is you all. Every single Milwaukeean who cares about our democracy needs to participate in the commission’s work and to send a message to every elected official that we demand a fair, nonpartisan redistricting process.
About the People’s Map Commission
Selected by a three-judge panel, the People’s Maps Commission is a nine-member nonpartisan redistricting commission charged with drawing fair, impartial maps for the state of Wisconsin. Every 10 years, each state redraws its legislative and congressional district maps using data from the decennial census. In addition to the data from the 2020 U.S. Census, the commission will use information gathered during the public hearing process to prepare new maps. It is then up to the Legislature to take up and approve the maps created by the commission. Since October, the commission has been hosting public hearings for each of Wisconsin’s congressional districts. The public comment provided during these hearings will be used to prepare new maps.