Our Path Forward: Make Every Vote Count

Wisconsin should end partisan gerrymandering and move to an election system of proportional representation and ranked-choice voting

What’s the Problem Addressed?
Wisconsin’s election results do not reflect citizen policy preferences. The biggest reason for this is that, counting all elections, most citizens don’t participate at all. Some nonvoters think that elections don’t matter, or offer no real choice. Others have been systematically targeted by the Walker administration’s voter suppression policies, and have been wrongly denied their right to vote.  

But there are three other aspects of our current system that deny or willfully distort the free and effective expression of citizen preferences. The first Wisconsin’s extreme partisan gerrymandering – another Walker administration give to the state. Gerrymandering occurs when a party exploits the redistricting process to “pack” or “crack” its opposition’s supporters and artificially suppress their influence. Say you’ve got a jurisdiction with voters split evenly in their loyalties. In Figure 1, party loyalties are represented by filled circles and triangles, the 64 voters are divided into four districts of 16 voters each, split evenly in party loyalty in each district. All else equal, we can expect an equal number of representatives from both parties to wind up in the legislature. As illustrated in Figure 2, a dominant party can change this expected result by “packing” opponents into fewer districts (as the circle party has done with its triangle opponents in the districting on the lower left of the figure), and “cracking” them over a greater number where they’ll be a safe minority. This is what’s happened in Wisconsin, post-Walker. Very few Wisconsin’s legislative seats are competitive anyway, and straight-ticket voting is the norm. So perhaps the best way to see gerrymandering’s effect on our legislature is simply to compare the partisan split at the top of the ticket with legislative results. In 2012, the Republican candidate for president received only 46% of the vote and lost the state, but the Republican Party still won 60% of the Assembly seats; in 2014, their share of votes in the governor’s race was 52%, but they want 63% of Assembly seats; last fall, with only 50% of the presidential vote, they gained 65% of the Assembly seats.[note] Gilbert, C. (18 January 2017), “More evidence of a skewed GOP map in Wisconsin,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel The results for Assembly votes alone are almost as striking. Here are then numbers for Republican share of that vote vs. share of seats one for post-Walker elections: 2012 (47:60); 2014 (57:64); 2016 (53:65).[/note] The Wisconsin system is now so rigged against the Democrats that they’d have to win a landslide portion of the statewide vote to recapture an Assembly (or Senate) majority. Whitford v. Gill, the Wisconsin-originating case protesting partisan gerrymandering, is at this writing still awaiting decision at the U.S. Supreme Court. Maybe that decision, and our present government’s reaction to it, will take of this first issue. But we wouldn’t count on it. 

A second undemocratic feature of our system is its “winner-takes-all” rules on winning legislative seats. Sometime merely by plurality, more commonly by a clear majority, whoever even wins a legislative election gets all of what’s up for grabs in it. In a district where voter partisan loyalties are split nearly evenly, say 52% Republican and 48% Democratic, the Republican will be awarded the legislative seat. The nearly half of the district population loyal to Democrats get nothing. And if that same distribution held across all seats in a legislature, it’d be 100% Republican, even though nearly half the population had different views. So then you’d have a government that didn’t represent half the people. See the problem for a democracy, where government is supposed to represent all the people?

The third and final problem with our present systems is it’s “one choice only” rules on counting voter preferences among candidates. This both limits the number of people willing to run for office and distorts the resulting government’s knowledge of voters’ real preferences. It can also lead to results that are truly unrepresentative, in “spoiled” elections. Let’s say there are four candidates – A, B, C, D – standing for some election. Let’s say they range from very democratic in their political program (candidate A) to very authoritarian (candidate D). All else equal, democratically-inclined voter would prefer A to B to C to D. But by choosing A, if that’s their only recorded preference, they may “spoil” the election by advantaging the opposite side of the spectrum, D, whom they really don’t want at all. And, knowing this, they’ll be reluctant to voice support for A, even though they prefer them to others. 

How OWR’s Proposal Addresses It
In a “proportional representation”(PR) system, legislative districts are multi-member not single-member, and are distributed by the share of the vote gained by different parties. This makes the composition of the legislature directly reflect voter partisan preference, not just the will of the majority. A “ranked-choice voting” (RCV) system doesn’t ask to make one choice only among diverse candidates, but to rank them in order of preference. In tallying votes, it eliminates candidates, starting from the lowest vote-getters, until a majority-winner is found; when a candidate is eliminated, voters who had selected them will have their vote assigned to their next choice. This preserves majority rule but gives voters fuller free expression, and gives outsider candidates more chance. 

Who Else is Doing This?
Today, 94 other countries use PR, and versions of it have historically been popular and widespread in the United States. RCV has been adopted in several U.S. cities (Oakland, Minneapolis, et al) for their mayoral elections. Several cities and states are now exploring one or both reforms. For example, in June 2018, the city of Santa Clara, CA will vote to establish both PR and RCV for its city council elections, and the state of  Maine will vote on a referendum to establish RCV for all state and federal offices.

Why not Wisconsin?
Wisconsin was once a leader in democratic voting reform. There is no reason it cannot become one again.