Wisconsin’s new legislative maps are a win for democracy

Tony Evers speaks at a lectern.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks about funding for the I-535 Blatnik Bridge before a visit by US President Joe Biden on January 25, 2024, at Earth Rider Brewery in Superior, Wisconsin.  | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

They could break the GOP’s longstanding gerrymandered grip on the state legislature.

Wisconsin now has legislative maps that align more closely with voters’ political preferences, a significant development that will fuel more competitive contests and could break Republicans’ longstanding grip on its legislature.

The maps, which were approved by both chambers of the Republican-led state legislature and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Monday, change the breakdown of the state’s Assembly and Senate districts from predominantly GOP leaning to nearly evenly split between the two parties. This redistricting means that Democrats actually have a shot at retaking the majority of the State Assembly in November, a prospect that was virtually impossible under the state’s prior maps, which the GOP had heavily gerrymandered in its favor.

Shifts in the composition of the legislature could be huge for the types of policies passed and for executive power. Shortly before Evers first took office, GOP lawmakers in the state voted to weaken the governor’s powers — something Democrats could change. In a state fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, the new maps could also make the legislature more representative of the distribution of voters’ political beliefs. (Per the AP, of the last 17 statewide elections, Democrats have won 14, but Republicans have maintained control of the legislature for more than a decade.) And new toss-up districts will create real campaigns in purple areas, giving those voters an actual say in who represents them.

“When I promised I wanted fair maps — not maps that are better for one party or another, including my own — I damn well meant it,” Evers said. “Wisconsin is not a red state or a blue state — we’re a purple state, and I believe our maps should reflect that basic fact.”

The key changes to the maps, briefly explained

According to an analysis from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state will move from having 64 Republican-leaning Assembly seats to 46 out of 99; 45 will lean Democratic, and eight will have no partisan lean. Additionally, it will go from 22 Republican-leaning Senate seats to 15 out of 33. Fourteen will lean Democratic, and four are expected to be true toss-ups.

“This is a turning point in the balance of power in Wisconsin state government. It upends over a decade of guaranteed Republican control,” University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Anthony Chergosky tells Vox. Previously, Wisconsin’s gerrymandered maps ensured that Republicans would maintain their hold on the legislature even if Democrats won the statewide popular vote in an election.

The new changes follow significant court battles over Wisconsin’s legislative maps, which the GOP had been fighting to keep as is. That fight went all the way to the now liberal-leaning state Supreme Court, which declared the old maps unconstitutional last year. Faced with a choice between adopting a map drawn by the Wisconsin Supreme Court or the maps passed Monday, which were proposed by Evers, GOP lawmakers chose the latter, fearing a court-drawn map would be even more favorable to Democrats.

Chergosky noted that the election of liberal justice Janet Protasiewicz in 2023 “utterly transformed the politics of redistricting in this state.” Protasiewicz’s presence gave liberals a majority on Wisconsin’s State Supreme Court for the first time in 15 years.

The impact this could have

The near-term impact of the new maps could be evident this fall, when Democrats have a real chance of winning the majority in the state Assembly. Because half of Wisconsin’s state Senate terms are up every two years, Democrats won’t have a chance to flip enough seats to take the majority in that chamber for at least a few terms. But that they even have the potential to win the state Assembly this year is groundbreaking, and it has major implications for democracy in the state.

“The most likely outcome this November is that the party that wins the majority of the vote will win the majority of the state Assembly. That has not been the outcome for over a decade in Wisconsin,” John Johnson, a research fellow at Marquette Law School, told Vox.

Under divided government, with the Assembly controlled by one party and the Senate another, there would likely still be gridlock. But Democratic control of even a single chamber would force more compromise on items like the state’s budget, which could mean different levels of funding for key priorities like education and child care.

Longer term, if Democrats gain control of both chambers (and if Evers or another Democrat wins the 2026 gubernatorial race), they’d be able to pass even more expansive policies, with experts noting that marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion are likely to be on the docket. Under those circumstances, lawmakers could also approve stronger protections for abortion rights in the state, where its Supreme Court is being asked to review whether access to legal abortions can continue.

Michigan, which has a Democratic trifecta in both its legislative chambers and governor’s office, has rolled back restrictive abortion and labor laws and approved new policies that promote the use of clean energy, for example. Johnson notes that it’s a good case study of what’s possible with Democratic control.

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