By: Colin Neal
Wisconsin’s 1st District has been in political prominence since its young Congressman, Rep. Paul Ryan, was tapped as Gov. Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 Presidential election. In 2015, riding the popularity of his Vice Presidential campaign, Rep. Paul Ryan became the youngest Speaker of the House of Representatives in over a century when he replaced Speaker Boehner. More recently, the race to replace outgoing Speaker Ryan in the Wisconsin’s 1st—a district Ryan has represented since 1999—has come under the national spotlight due to excitement about Democrat Randy Bryce, an ironworker and community activist with a bombastic, yet compassionate, attitude. However, Bryce’s race to replace Rep. Ryan may not be so simple. In the midst of a “blue wave” responding to the unpopularity of President Trump, Wisconsin’s 1st is seen as a potential pick-up district for Democrats. However, Wisconsin’s 1st is a product of a statewide gerrymander plan that may very well raise the Republican shoreline above the incoming blue wave, despite Randy Bryce’s efforts. This is due to a failure of the Wisconsin Constitution and Wisconsin statutes to codify requirements for Congressional districting beyond mere administrative advice, namely requiring compactness and respect for existing political borders. Although the Wisconsin Constitution requires such for the redistricting of the state legislature (the compliance with such constitutional mandate notwithstanding), its failure to include such requirement for federal elections has led to a near-insurmountable gerrymander in Wisconsin’s 1st, which may otherwise be quite competitive.
The most egregious failure of the drawing of Wisconsin’s 1st is the lack of respect for existing political boundaries. Wisconsin’s 1st, comprising the southeastern corner of the state, is made up of six counties: Kenosha, Racine, Walworth, Rock, Waukesha, and Milwaukee Counties. The lines of Wisconsin’s 1st split all but two of these counties: Kenosha and Racine in the southeastern-most corner, south of Milwaukee. The district is careful to avoid the traditionally Democratic counties of south-central Milwaukee County, containing only seven of the precincts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 in a county that preferred her by a margin of 65% to 29%. The populous and conservative Waukesha County to the west of Milwaukee is fairly evenly split with the Republican stronghold 5th District. These two districts share Walworth County as well, with the 1st District containing all of Walworth except the northwestern corner, comprising of the Democratic-leaning City of Whitewater. Rock County is split fairly geographically evenly with the Democratic stronghold of Wisconsin’s 2nd District. Oddly, the 1st District bulges out west to grab Ryan’s native Jainesville, but recedes back east to avoid the small, but liberal, city of Beloit. Considering the votes of these six counties as a whole, irrespective of Congressional district lines, Hillary Clinton won them by a margin of 10 points in 2016. However, with the gerrymandered drawing of Wisconsin’s 1st District, Donald Trump won the District by a margin of 10 points, and Representative Ryan won by a staggering 35 points.
Of course, Wisconsin’s 1st District could not comprise the whole of those six counties and comply with the Supreme Court’s demand for one-person-one-vote apportionment for Congressional Districts. However, it is entirely possible for the Wisconsin state legislature to draw the 1st Congressional District with respect for political boundaries that would not so deeply entrench Republicans. The political statisticians at the online news and statistics site FiveThirtyEight determined that Wisconsin’s 1st in its current composition will elect Republicans in 83.5% of elections (this analysis was done by compiling and studying historical data from elections beginning in 2006). Re-drawing the entire state of Wisconsin to comply more strictly with political boundaries, FiveThirtyEight statisticians were able to create a more competitive 1st District that gives Republicans a 68.8% of chance of winning, against a Democrat’s 31.2% likelihood of success. This map still splits the populous Milwaukee County, but leaves intact Rock, Waukesha, and Walworth Counties.
Considering all of this data and analysis of the strange construction of Wisconsin’s 1st District, it becomes clear that the consideration of partisan gain and protection is prevailing over the less neutral and more administratively simple standard of respect for existing political boundaries. Given the historic, as well as recent, reluctance of the United States Supreme Court to adjudicate on questions of partisan gerrymandering, a strong alternative recourse for the people of Wisconsin would be to utilize the state courts to resolve these oddly constructed and community-splitting districts. To do so, the people of Wisconsin would need to pressure their legislators to either pass a statute that requires commitment to existing political boundaries in Congressional line drawing, or fight for a State Constitutional amendment that would do the same. Including such language requiring the preservation of existing political and municipal boundaries would not be radical; this requirement is demanded by constitution or statute of a number of states of varying partisan leanings and population sizes, including Arizona, California, Florida, Hawai’i, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, and Oregon, as well as many other states.
Until this requirement is codified, even popular and well-financed candidates like Randy Bryce running in elections like the 2018 midterms—where many citizens are likely to vote for the first time and many typically Republican voters are tempted to vote Democrat—stand no chance of overcoming the entrenchment effect of the partisan gerrymander. The gerrymandered 1st District of Wisconsin was drawn to prevent Democrats from representing Wisconsin in Congress, and it may well serve its purpose in the contentious upcoming midterms.