As politicians from different parties, we disagree a lot. We vote for different candidates for president, we have very different views on taxes, and we disagree strongly on abortion.
But some things we agree on: We both love our home state, Wisconsin, where we have had long careers in public service, including having led our state Senate. And we’re both deeply concerned that the political system in Wisconsin — as in so much of the country — is broken.
Nothing epitomizes the problem more than the extreme partisan gerrymandering that has taken hold in Wisconsin and other states, where politicians and special interests have rigged the system, manipulating voting maps to keep their own political party in power with little regard for the will of the voters.
That’s why we are supporting the lawsuit from Wisconsin that the U.S. Supreme Court just agreed to hear that would limit gerrymandering no matter which party does it. In our view — as the old saying goes — absolute power corrupts absolutely. Fighting gerrymandering is about fighting abuse of power, no matter who does it. If our side wins the lawsuit, we will establish a principle that reins in not only Republicans in states such as Wisconsin and North Carolina but also Democrats in states such as Maryland and Illinois.
Our state is divided right down the middle politically. Wisconsinites voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and for Donald Trump in 2016. One of our two U.S. senators is a Democrat and the other is a Republican. And in State Assembly elections, the statewide vote has been close to 50-50, with Democrats securing a narrow majority of the statewide vote in 2012, and Republicans winning slim majorities in 2014 and 2016.
Yet our state legislative maps don’t come close to reflecting that split. For the past three elections, Republicans have controlled between 61 percent and 65 percent of the Assembly, even when they earned fewer popular votes than Democrats statewide. That’s because Republicans used their electoral victories in 2010 to promptly — and secretly — draw legislative district maps that ensured Republican control of the state legislature for a decade, no matter how the people voted. In 2012, they lost the popular vote but still retained a massive majority in the legislature. They even tried to hide their analysis, which revealed that Democrats would have had to secure an almost-unprecedented share of the statewide vote to secure a bare majority in the Assembly.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments for Wisconsin’s case, Gill vs. Whitford, this fall. Late last year, a three-judge federal panel ruled that the district maps were unconstitutional. This historic ruling, written by an appellate judge appointed by President Ronald Reagan, marked the first time a legislative map was overturned on the grounds that it was politically discriminatory.
We hope that the high court curtails the practice of fixing elections through gerrymandering so that our country can get back on track. The principle is simple: Elections should be fair and should be designed so that voters choose their elected officials, not the other way around. We believe the majority should rule, and elections should reflect the will of the electorate. But when the maps are rigged, people are left behind.
When we each served as state Senate majority leader, we knew we had to reach bipartisan compromise on key issues. That’s what voters expected, no matter which party was in control. And so we did. Republicans and Democrats compromised on common-sense environmental protections, adequate funding for universities and roads, and tax rates that were sufficient to fund necessary services but not overly burdensome on our residents. When the maps weren’t rigged and politicians had to win votes from the middle — because general elections mattered — we had better results.
Since 2011, we’ve seen a different kind of politics in Wisconsin. With party control pre-decided, most legislators care only about their primary elections. Everyone knows who’s going to win the general election. There’s much less incentive to reach bipartisan compromise. Instead, we see policy decided in partisan caucuses, leaving the minority out in the cold. That’s not what Wisconsin citizens want, but it is the government they are getting.
Tim Cullen is a former Democratic majority leader of the Wisconsin Senate. Dale Schultz is a former Republican majority leader of the Wisconsin Senate. They are co-chairs of the Fair Elections Project, which helped organize the Gill vs. Whitford litigation. They wrote this article for the Washington Post.