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Wisconsin’s extreme gerrymandering era ends as new maps come into force

<span>Governor Tony Evers shows the new signed legislative maps on 19 February at the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.</span><span>Photograph: John Hart/AP</span>
Governor Tony Evers shows the new signed legislative maps on 19 February at the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.Photograph: John Hart/AP

For more than a decade, an anti-democratic reality has loomed over Wisconsin: elections for the state legislature don’t matter.

Since 2012, no matter how voters throughout one of America’s most competitive states cast their ballots, Republicans have been guaranteed to hold control of the state legislature. That’s because for more than a decade Republicans drew districts lines that are so distorted in their favor, they cemented their control. The dominance was underscored in 2022 when Tony Evers, a Democrat, won re-election with 51.2% of the vote. Republicans still held 65% of the seats in the 99-person state assembly.

Related: Wisconsin adopts new legislative maps, giving Democrats chance to win state

As of 19 February, that era is over.

In a 4-3 decision in December, the Wisconsin supreme court struck down the state legislative maps, ruling that the many non-contiguous districts in the plan violated a state constitutional requirement for contiguity. It invited the legislature, governor and various other parties to submit proposals for a new map and warned it would draw its own if lawmakers and the governor could not agree on a plan.

Last week, after a lot of wrangling, the Republican-led legislature passed new maps that were drawn by Evers. The new plan dramatically reshapes politics in Wisconsin, giving Democrats a chance to win control of the assembly this year. They could also possibly win control of the state senate in 2026, giving them complete control of state government. (State senate districts in Wisconsin are composed of three assembly districts).

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“In its simplest form it means we don’t know which party is gonna control the state assembly after the November election. That hasn’t been true for over a decade,” said John Johnson, a research fellow at Marquette law school in Milwaukee, who has closely studied the maps.

The new assembly map undoes the severe gerrymandering of the last decade in a few ways. Republicans had cracked concentrations of Democratic votes in places such as Sheboygan into multiple districts, diluting their vote. The new map undoes that cracking, keeping all of Sheboygan in one district.

Republicans took a similar approach in Green Bay. They attached Democratic-leaning areas on the outskirts of the city to more conservative areas, creating two solidly Republican districts. The new lines create two highly competitive districts there.

The new map also dramatically reconfigures the south-central portion of the state, adding five additional safe Democratic districts. “It’s just to me a pretty remarkable change,” Johnson said.

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Democrats were skeptical when Republicans chose to enact the maps drawn by Evers at the last minute, with some wondering why lawmakers who had used every maneuever possible to stay in power would suddenly agree to adopt Democratic maps. But in choosing Evers’ maps, Republicans may have chosen the best of the available options for them. It pairs fewer incumbents in districts than did other proposals, Johnson noted. And unlike some of the other plans, it allows Republicans to keep a majority in the state senate this year, giving them the ability to hold on to control of a chamber until the end of Evers’ second term in 2026.

The map is also still biased towards Republicans. In a hypothetical, perfectly tied election in the state assembly, Republicans would still be expected to gain 6% extra seats, according to Planscore, a website that uses mathematical metrics to evaluate electoral maps. Under the previous plan, Republicans would have received a 15% extra seat boost in a hypothetically tied election.

And while the map puts control of the assembly up for grabs, it doesn’t create more individually competitive districts, Johnson noted.

“It raises the Democratic floor, and lowers the Republican ceiling, but it’s not a map that was drawn to maximize the number of closely contested seats around the state,” Johnson said. “Now those competitive districts are far more consequential than they were under the old maps.

“You can tell this is a map drawn by Democrats,” he added.