The bigger story of Wisconsin’s pandemic election

April 21, 2020 6:25 am
A resident waits in line to vote at a polling place in Milwaukee for the April 7, 2020, primary election. Residents waited sometimes more than two hours to vote at this site, one of the few polling places open in the city after most were consolidated due to a shortage of poll workers fearful of contracting COVID-19. Photo by Scott Olson | Getty Images

A resident waits in line to vote at a polling place in Milwaukee for the April 7, 2020, primary election. Residents waited sometimes more than two hours to vote at this site, one of the few polling places open in the city after most were consolidated due to a shortage of poll workers fearful of contracting COVID-19. Photo by Scott Olson | Getty Images

There is a certain satisfaction — on the order of that joyful dance that Snoopy of Peanuts fame has gifted us — when a bully is thwarted. 

One contemporary example of bullying is when an outnumbered group games the system to impose its will on the more numerous simply to maintain power. In political parlance, this is called gerrymandering.

The big news coming out of the recent election in Wisconsin was that progressive judge Jill Karofsky trounced the appointed incumbent, conservative Daniel Kelly, to win a seat on the state Supreme Court. This whittles the conservative majority on that court from 5-2 to 4-3. 

That is, indeed, a big story. Let me suggest, however, that votes on redistricting reform, also in this election, constitute a big story, too.

But first that Supreme Court race. Speaking of thwarting bullies, it is indeed attention grabbing that Karofsky’s win occurred despite the GOP legislative majority’s efforts to suppress the vote. This majority blocked Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ efforts to postpone the election in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Heeding the public health experts, he wanted Wisconsinites to vote by mail rather than the in-person voting tailor-made to spread the illness. 

The GOP’s response, aided by each of the conservative majorities on the state and U.S. supreme courts: No, we would rather have voters choose between their health and their vote. This was tantamount to admitting that, to stay in power, Republicans need as few voters as possible to show up. In suppressing the vote, the GOP deemed any folks needlessly exposed to contagion as acceptable collateral damage. 

This strategy backfired. The big reason for the GOP’s recklessness was to give Kelly a leg up over Karofsky in that state Supreme Court race. But Kelly lost

The news naturally centered on that story and Karofsky’s margin of victory, 55% to 45%.

But here are a few other election-winning figures: 79%, 72.4%, 74.5%, 76.7%, 74.9%, 80.6% 76.3%, 76.6% and 72.4%. These are how big the wins were in nine Wisconsin counties for referenda that called for a nonpartisan mechanism for redrawing the state’s political map every ten years. That 79% was the margin of victory in Milwaukee County. 

Such referenda at the county level are, of course, non-binding. The organizers of the efforts — the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition — are trying to give legislators a sense of the state on this matter of partisan gerrymandering. And that sense is that Wisconsinites don’t like it when legislators stack the deck and pick their own voters.

The county measures asked, “Should the state create a nonpartisan procedure for the preparation of Legislative and Congressional district plans and maps?”

But, again, the referenda are non-binding. That means Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald are free to thumb their noses at the measures.

What became abundantly clear after the April 7 election, however, is that this nose thumbing does not reflect the popular will. Polls that say this are one thing, votes at election time are quite another. Continuing efforts to suppress the vote — evident also in the voter ID law and moves to block expanded voting by mail — will represent a last gasp to stave off the inevitable.

Pollyannish on my part? No, the trend is clear. At some point we will have a legislative majority that listens to public opinion on redistricting, whether that majority is Democratic or Republican. The public will on this is inexorable.

Nine Wisconsin counties and 14 municipalities had these measures on April 7 ballots. The results were lopsidedly in favor of redistricting reform.

These nine counties represent 25.4% of the state’s 5.82 million residents. That’s noteworthy, but far from a majority. But eight other counties had approved the measure earlier. And together with the counties voting more recently, these represent nearly half of all residents. Another county — Jefferson — is slated to vote in November. 


Moreover, the governing boards in 50 of the state’s 72 counties have passed resolutions calling for nonpartisan redistricting. Consider: the county populations where these board members were elected account for a clear majority of the state’s residents

How is this linked to the splashier story of Karofsky besting Kelly for a Supreme Court seat? After all, her win merely narrows the conservative majority to 4-3 on the court. 

But the next seat is up in 2023 — conservative Chief Justice Patience Roggensack’s seat. 

There is percolating in the Legislature a bill to model Wisconsin’s redistricting effort after Iowa’s, where the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau draws the maps using strictly nonpartisan criteria such as maintaining communities of interest. This means legislative and congressional districts that appear more square or rectangular, a departure from the misbegotten shapes thrust on voters and concocted purely for partisan advantage.

The Legislature would be left to approve or disapprove the maps in their entirety without amendment. Yes, the Legislature could reject these nonpartisan maps twice by simple majorities, leaving it free to craft its own maps. But legislators would have to muster a three-quarters majority to approve any of these more partisan versions. 

Republicans can’t come up with supermajorities now, and my prediction is that their majorities will be trimmed in future elections.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that failed to decide whether partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional punted this matter to state legislatures and courts. If gerrymandered maps or redistricting reform are challenged, a Roggensack loss in 2023 would mean no rubber stamp left on the state’s highest court for GOP map drawers, if a Republican majority in the legislature even exists at that point. 

Wisconsin’s proposed law to achieve redistricting reform is Assembly Bill 303. It stands little chance in a GOP controlled Legislature. There will, however, be other more responsive legislatures.

Advocates for the status quo argue that such a change violates the state Constitution. But as Jay Heck of Common Cause explains, this is bogus. The Constitution doesn’t preclude others from drawing the lines using nonpartisan criteria. AB303 leaves intact legislative approval. This approval also renders bogus GOP leaders’ silly objection that we musn’t leave redistricting in the hands of, gasp, nameless, unelected bureaucrats. The Legislative Reference Bureau would be helped by a five-member Redistricting Advisory Commission.

Yes, the state Supreme Court race and GOP efforts to suppress the vote are a big story. But what the trends say about the prospects of fairness inserted in redistricting merits at least equal billing. That is a huge story. In any case, any claim that GOP leaders are heeding the public will on redistricting is now conclusively laid bare as false.

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O. Ricardo Pimentel
O. Ricardo Pimentel

O. Ricardo Pimentel has been a journalist for about 40 years. He was most recently the managing editor at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, was editorial page editor for the San Antonio Express-News in Texas and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before that. He has also worked in various editing and reporting positions in newspapers in California, Arizona, Texas and Washington D.C., where he covered Congress, federal agencies and the Supreme Court for McClatchy Newspapers. He is the author of two novels and lives in Wisconsin.