The Basic Democratic Problem in Wisconsin

Current attempts to take power away from the state executive branch illustrates a lot of what I have been writing about for years.

The situation in Wisconsin rather straightforwardly illustrates a key element of what I have been trying to bring to the foreground for discussion:  the connection between basic representation of the population and the electoral rules that translate votes into seats.

The reason I frequently write about representativeness and the disconnect between voter preference (as measured in votes) and partisan control of elected office is that the most basic idea of representative government is that the elected government ought to be a rough reflection reflection of the electorate.  A key part of that concept is that the elected government has to be accountable to that electorate on a regular basis.

In simple terms:  there ought to be a reasonable chance to, as the saying goes, “vote the bums out” if what those bums are doing in office is not what a majority of voters want them to be doing.  If elected officials can enact laws that are opposed by the majority, but can be re-elected to continue to control government by the minority, that is not representative democracy.

To bring it specifically to the Wisconsin state legislature:  we have a situation in which the Republican-controlled legislature has voted, in a lame duck session, to restrict the powers of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general.  Regardless of the legality of the action, or even to get into the small-d democratic issues with lame duck sessions, it is clear that what is going on here is one party trying to curtail the powers of another party.  It is also clear that this attempt at power-curtailing is in direct opposition to what the state’s electorate wanted, as they voted for the governor and AG (and the majority of voters wanted a Democratic Assembly).

An immediate response by some has been:  well, if the people of Wisconsin don’t like these changes, they can register their unhappiness at the polls at the next election. But they actually can’t, at least not in such a straightforward fashion.  Wisconsin’s State Assembly is so gerrymandered that the only way Democrats can win the chamber back is through some truly extraordinary outcomes.

Let’s note the following (source):

Democrats won more that 200,000 more votes that Republicans statewide, and yet the Republicans have 27 more seats in the Assembly.  But, you say, “they don’t elect the Assembly statewide, they do in in districts.”  Indeed, they do, and in districts that were drawn using computer algorithms to maximize Republican gains.  The districts are perhaps some of the most sophisticated gerrymanders in the country and they practically guarantee GOP dominance of the chamber–which will continue, barring a court ruling, since the legislature also controls future redistricting.  The containers (districts) are more important than what they contain (voters).

Put another way, The Democrats won ~53% of the statewide vote share, but only 36% of the seats.  That means that the “majority” party in the House won 64% of the seats on ~47% of the vote.  There was a popular mandate for Democratic government in WI in 2018, as evidenced by the win in the governor’s race, but instead the legislature will remain firmly in Republican hands.

The current Assembly, elected in 2016, did win the majority vote-share, but it still had an outsized majority.  From the linked piece:

The current assembly was elected in 2016. That year, Republican assembly candidates earned about 161,000 more votes than did Democratic candidates. In total, they won about 52 percent of the votes cast.

The election left them with a 64-to-35 majority in the assembly. By winning 52 percent of the vote, the Republicans won 65 percent of the seats.

This underscores one of the problems with the lame duck session:  clearly the voters’ preference was for Democratic government, and yet the old legislature is taking away power from the executive as it goes out the door, knowing also that the next legislature will not reverse the changes.

I would note that if the 2016 outcome was closer to the actual vote (i.e., only 52%) it might have made the lame duck changes harder to accomplish.

The gerrymandering can be seen here in this graph by Barry Burden, Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison:

This is clear packing (creating uncontested districts) and cracking (creating a bunch of barely 50% districts by diluting support for a specific party by way of boundary-drawing) in action.  The WI GOP maximized their votes via computer and they produce a non-democratic outcome. Rapid demographic shifts or some bizarre partisan realignment in the state could upset this but such outcomes are unlikely.  And, again, the GOP is basically certain to be in charge in time to draw the next set of maps.

The overall situation directly illustrates what I keep trying to write about here at OTB:  electoral rules matter.  And if we take the idea of representative democracy seriously, this should be of concern. Either one supports fair, represenative outcomes, or one doesn’t.  And if one doesn’t, one cannot call themselves a small-d democrat.

When I talk about the disjuncture between the popular vote and election outcomes, this is the kind of thing I am talking about (it just more egregious than most examples I have used, both in terms of the disproportional outcomes, but also in terms of the naked power gab).  Again:  we have here a clear difference between the overall voter preferences and the make-up of the assembly (this is true in both examples, but is just far more egregious in the 2018 outcome).  From there we have legislative activity that likely is out of sync with the preferences of the majority of Wisconsinites (and is counter-democratic insofar as it attempts to blunt the significance of an electoral loss in executive elections by the party perpetrating the legislation), but in the context in which is nearly impossible for those voters to correct the situation at the next election if that was what the collective preference is.

Elections should have consequences for who governs (and in a way that reflects popular preference).  If they don’t, we move into the realm of authoritarianism.  When the outcomes of the elections can be known ahead of time because of cheating or some other structural condition (such as extreme gerrymandering), then those elections are not democratic.  Iran has elections for their parliament, and their processes on election day are more or less free and fair–but because who gets to be a candidate is controlled, we cannot call those elections truly democratic.  There were elections in Mexico during most of the 20th century that were not free and fair because the PRI was guaranteed to win (partially because the electoral machinery was run by the PRI and partly due to rampant cheating–not unlike what we appear to be seeing in NC-9, which I will have to write about soon).

And if one’s response is that I am only writing about this because it hurts Democrats and helps Republicans, I would adamantly counter with:  No.  I object to this outcome because it violates basic tenets of representative democracy (I noted the other day, for example, that CA Republicans are under-represented in the state’s House delegation).*  If one looks at this and the result as starts into a defense based on the partisan outcomes, then I would suggest that perhaps the key variable is not my presumed partisan preferences, but rather it is the preferences of the critic.

This situation should be objectionable to all Americans.  That it isn’t is troubling (to put it mildly).  I am willing to accept that partisan filters (and lack of full understanding) can initially lead to dismissing this as no big deal, but sober, careful consideration cannot result in such a conclusion, not if one actually values democracy.**

To summarize:

  • A foundational notion of representative democracy is that if elected officials engage in actions that some significant portion of voters don’t like, then there should be an ability of those voters to overturn those actions via the ballot box if they have the numbers to do so.
  • The problem is that in Wisconsin, as a result of the fundamental flaws linked to geographic sorting and other structural conditions created by single seat districts coupled with extremely precise, computer-aided gerrymandering means that the democratic (small-“d”) feedback loop is substantially warped to aid the Republicans.

There is another discussion to be had about lame duck sessions in general, insofar as from a democratic theory point of view, they are problematic. The basic problem is that legislators in a lame duck session who have lost re-election or are leaving office for whatever reason are not democratically accountable during the lame duck session. There is no way for voters to register their support or opposition to those politicians since they will never face election. And, there is a freshly elected legislature about to take office, so why not them do the legislating? If anything, there is a very basic democratic notion that once the voters have determined that power should change hands via an electoral outcome that the peaceful transfer of power ought to be allowed unimpeded.

*I plan to stay on this theme and to point out examples that favor Dems over Reps, although the empirical reality is that, for the most part, these situations (both the naturally occurring and the deliberately designed) help the GOP.  In reality, my main constraint is time–there are dozens of posts, if not a book, to be written on this topic.

**BTW:  this example is not amenable to the typical “we have a republic, not a democracy” nonsense.  This is not about federalism, or some weird theory of balancing majority and minority rights.  This is straightforwardly about whether the State Assembly of Wisconsin is representative of its citizens, or it isn’t.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Todd says:

    If the minority party also captures the court system, there really is no remedy to thwart their plans. What happened in places like GA and FL leading up to the election was also disturbing. We have these egregious efforts by the party in power to suppress the voting that might take away that power; then when it’s ultimately successful, we see all these otherwise reasonable people going around telling us that “we must respect the results”. Why?

    At some point this situation is going to come to a head … and what happens next might end up getting pretty ugly.

  2. Gustopher says:

    I agree with all of this, but what can be done about it?

    I know that I will never vote for another Republican in my life, but that doesn’t really help. Wisconsin has had large protest earlier in the Walker administration, but they were ineffective and ignored.

  3. James in Bremerton says:

    We have vote by mail in WA beginning six weeks out. No lines, no fraud, and no politicians with their stupid thumb on the scales, because you’d have to be dumber than a box of rocks to be in government while threatening to take away people’s votes.

    This should be the national standard.

  4. Paine says:

    This kind of behavior is outrageous. If I lived in Wisconsin I’d probably be attending antifa meetings and learning how to build bombs.

    Again, this all goes back to a complete lack of foresight by the founding fathers. We’re stuck with this godawful two-party, electoral college, single-seat district system that is utterly unsuited for a large, diverse country with huge population disparities between states and urban and rural areas. It’s a system designed for a country that no longer exists and a majority of us are being punished as a result.

  5. gVOR08 says:


    Again, this all goes back to a complete lack of foresight by the founding fathers.

    True enough. Closer to hand, it’s the fault of the Republican REDMAP project and the development of software that allows redistricting with surgical precision. The sort of statistical, big data thing Chief Justiced Roberts pretends to not understand. REDMAP was a concerted push in 2010 to gain control of state legislatures specifically to get control of redistricting after the 2010 census. It was paid for by the usual list of wealthy Republican donors.

  6. Kathy says:

    The only solution I see is broad reform, along the lines of what’s been discussed here.

    Reform is a solution that carries its own problems, namely how to get the people in power to effect reform. After all, they’re the main beneficiaries of the current system.

    In the past some of the worst excesses were curbed on the reciprocity principle. If party A stripped power off the governor, then party B would reciprocate in kind later on. This has ended for various reasons, one being the ability to gerrymander districts so party A can hold on to power without requiring a majority.

    In a way the checks and balances have lost their checks and balances.

    The other big problem of reform is warring reformers willing to let the rotten edifice stand, rather than see a different version of reform take place. My advice on this would be to focus on the ends rather than the means.

  7. dennis says:

    Conservatism has precipitated something that is going to result in a larger and uglier backlash than what was seen in Charlottesville last year. It’s going to get much worse before things get better.

  8. Kip Ingram says:

    @Paine: Well, the Founders had nothing to do with the two party system – the parties arose later. As far as the electoral college goes, that was deliberately intended to be a “layer between” the voters and the selection of the President – and I think it’s extremely clear that we still need it. Americans don’t think enough – we react to issues emotionally and not with logic, and it’s the role of that intervening layer to keep clear heads.

    Now, to support your argument to at least some degree, it is true that the nation has changed a great deal. When the United States was first created, the federal government was of rather limited power and very little direct relationship existed between the citizens and the federal government – it really was an organization of the States. This was so much the case that most people felt primary loyalty to their State, not to the nation. That has decisively changed.

    Unfotunately, changing any of this requires amending the Constitution, which requires support from 3/4 of the states. Good luck getting that into today’s polarized climate. Maybe if we all would learn to talk to each other again, and recognize that every individual’s opinion has the same fundamental validity, we could get to a point where wise changes to the Constitution could occur. But when all either side cares about is “sticking it to” the other side (I’m blaming BOTH sides here), it’s unlikely to happen.

  9. @Kip Ingram: True about parties; they didn’t really understand parties.


    As far as the electoral college goes, that was deliberately intended to be a “layer between” the voters and the selection of the President – and I think it’s extremely clear that we still need it. Americans don’t think enough – we react to issues emotionally and not with logic, and it’s the role of that intervening layer to keep clear heads.

    The EC does not bring deliberation to the process. The electors serve as partisan messengers. There is nothing about that process that introduces clear heads any clearer than a direct popular vote would bring. (Indeed, given the fact that the electors are even more partisan than the typical voter, one could argue the EC is less clear headed than is the electorate).