Make Wisconsin a Democracy Again

Badger State Republicans can’t bear having to compete for power.

Illustration showing a checked box, but the check mark is actually two of the four wings of the Wisconsin state capitol.
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

Many Republican legislators lost their job in the 2018 blue-wave midterm that swept Democrats into the majority in the U.S. House.

But not in Wisconsin. There, Republicans celebrated the fourth straight election in which they maintained close to a two-thirds majority in the state assembly, despite winning about 200,000 fewer votes and losing every statewide race. Those extra 200,000 votes won precisely one additional assembly seat for the Democrats. Since then, their control of the state legislature has remained unthreatened.

How is that possible? After Democrats got wiped out in the 2010 midterms, Republicans gerrymandered Wisconsin with scientific precision—ensuring that in a state more or less evenly divided politically, the GOP would maintain its grip on power regardless of how the voters felt about it. Democrats would have to win by a landslide—at least 12 points, according to one expert—just to get a bare majority of 50 seats in the assembly, whereas Republicans could do so by winning only 44 percent of the vote. The U.S. Supreme Court has fueled a bipartisan race to the bottom on gerrymandering by invalidating every voter protection that comes before it, but even in today’s grim landscape, the Badger State is one of the standouts.

“Wisconsin is probably the best example of democratic backsliding in a state since the 2000s,” Jake Grumbach, a political-science professor at the University of Washington and the author of Laboratories Against Democracy, told me. “This weakening of democracy has made policy in Wisconsin, including on abortion and many other areas, less responsive to the preferences of Wisconsin voters.”

Wisconsin is a famously closely divided state, but thanks to their precise drawing of legislative districts, Republicans have maintained something close to a two-thirds majority whether they won more votes or not. With that kind of job security, Republicans in Wisconsin could enact an agenda far to the right of the state’s actual electorate, attacking unions, abortion rights, and voting rights without having to worry that swing voters would throw the bums out. After all, they couldn’t. And year after year, the right-wing majority on the state supreme court would ensure that gerrymandered maps kept their political allies in power and safely protected from voter backlash. Some mismatch between the popular vote and legislative districts is not inherently nefarious—it just happens to be both deliberate and extreme in Wisconsin’s case.

Janet Protasiewicz’s 11-point victory earlier this week over the conservative Daniel Kelly in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election could return to Wisconsin something its legislative elections haven’t had in years: democracy. Understandably, abortion rights seem to have been the decisive issue for voters. With Roe v. Wade overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, the state’s strict 1849 abortion law, which contains no exceptions for rape or incest, came into effect and was challenged in court by the state’s Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul.

The future of abortion rights in the state therefore likely hinged on the contest between Protasiewicz and Kelly, who made it clear that he would rule exactly how conservatives wanted him to. “I don’t think you have to worry about that with me,” Kelly told the right-wing radio host David Clarke, who asked if the right could trust him to rule their way on key matters such as gun rights and redistricting.

With Protasiewicz in office, the state supreme court could end the autocratic cycle of Republican state legislators carving the state up to prevent Wisconsin voters from denying them a majority if the latest maps come before the court. After a decade of the state being at the frontier of Republican experiments in minority rule, the will of Wisconsin voters would actually matter.

Unsurprisingly, even before the ballots were counted, Wisconsin Republicans were raising the possibility of impeaching Protasiewicz should she make the mistake of believing that how the electorate votes should matter. The state constitution allows the legislature to impeach “all civil officers of this state for corrupt conduct in office, or for crimes and misdemeanors,” and for some state Republicans, disagreeing with them qualifies as corruption. The Republican Dan Knodl, who narrowly won the state’s eighth Senate district election on Tuesday, giving the GOP a supermajority, suggested that he might be willing to impeach Protasiewicz, but Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu insisted that Republicans would not “use impeachments to overturn elections or anything like that.”

If they do, it wouldn’t be the first time that the Wisconsin GOP responded poorly to losing. After the Democrat Tony Evers unseated then-Governor Scott Walker in the 2018 election, the party responded by stripping Evers and Kaul of key powers before they took office.

Impeaching Protasiewicz would be an imperfect solution for Republicans, however, because Evers would be able to name her replacement, and that replacement would not have to be confirmed by the legislature. Miriam Seifter, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, told me that, under state law, if Protasiewicz were removed before December, the seat would be up for election the following spring. But if she were removed after, the replacement would serve for years, because the election cannot take place concurrently when another supreme-court race is on the ballot. Perhaps Republicans who currently oppose impeachment were chastened by Kelly’s loss, but perhaps impeachment just wouldn’t get them what they want.

“Under the Wisconsin Constitution, as elsewhere, impeachment is not the mechanism for ordinary disagreement or judicial discipline,” Seifter told me. “And, absent allegation of corruption or crime, weaponizing impeachment to overturn election outcomes would not be a sign of a healthy democracy.”

Wisconsin hasn’t been a healthy democracy for some time. It’s more of a years-long experiment in Republicans disenfranchising voters whom they’d prefer not to answer to. Just after the 2018 election, in which Republicans retained nearly two-thirds of the assembly despite getting only 46 percent of the vote, Speaker Robin Vos explained that it was only fair that Democratic voters’ ballots should count less.

“If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority—we would have all five constitutional officers and we would probably have many more seats in the Legislature,” Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “As much as they complain about gerrymandering and all things that I think are made up issues for their failed agenda, I think we won a fair and square election.”

In other words: The party that should have won the most votes should win, not the party that actually got more votes, because certain people’s votes—the kind of people who live in cities, you know who I mean—really shouldn’t count.

That’s the kind of logic that leads to a mob breaching the Capitol in a violent attempt to overthrow a presidential election. It’s also the kind of logic that leads lawmakers to believe they can do anything they want without ever having to face consequences for it. Bringing Wisconsin back from the brink of perpetual one-party rule won’t make it a blue state. But it would make it a real democracy again.