Renewed Calls For Patriotism Over Politics When Drawing District Lines It's not against the law for politicians to consider politics when they're redrawing districts, but the situation in Wisconsin is particularly aggressive.
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Renewed Calls For Patriotism Over Politics When Drawing District Lines

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Renewed Calls For Patriotism Over Politics When Drawing District Lines

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Renewed Calls For Patriotism Over Politics When Drawing District Lines

Renewed Calls For Patriotism Over Politics When Drawing District Lines

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/553814200/554601038" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Wisconsin state Sen. Van Wanggaard (center) attends an event at Gorney Park in Caledonia, Wis., in 2012. Mark Hertzberg/AP hide caption

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Mark Hertzberg/AP

Wisconsin state Sen. Van Wanggaard (center) attends an event at Gorney Park in Caledonia, Wis., in 2012.

Mark Hertzberg/AP

Van Wanggaard was elected to the Wisconsin state Senate in 2010 as a Republican. A year later, the Republicans in control of the Legislature redrew the district lines as part of the redistricting process that happens every 10 years.

Wanggaard's district was one that was dramatically reconfigured to strengthen the GOP's hold on power. Urban parts of the district that were filled with Democratic voters were sliced off, and areas filled with Republican voters were added. What had once been a competitive seat became safely Republican.

Perhaps what's most striking about the redrawn district is where the line runs — it carefully cuts around Wanggaard's house, before sawing off neighbors a few houses down and dumping them into Democratic-leaning territory.

It's not against the law for politicians to consider politics when they're redrawing districts. But the approach Wisconsin Republicans took was particularly aggressive. Since lawmakers designed new district lines in 2011, they've kept a solid grip on power, maintaining a sizable majority in the state Legislature without a sizable majority of the vote. (For example, in 2012, Republicans won 47 percent of the vote statewide but took 60 percent of seats in the Assembly.)

They did that through a combination of concentrating and dispersing Democratic voters — known as "packing and cracking."

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A case before the Supreme Court next week will hear arguments about whether Wisconsin's maps went too far. It could be the first time the justices will set limits on what's known as "partisan gerrymandering" — when the party in power deliberately redraws district lines so it can hang on to control of a legislature.

Republican lawmakers saw to it that Wanggaard wouldn't have to move to remain in secure Republican terrain. Wanggaard's office declined to comment to NPR about his district lines.

Racine divided

One of Wanggaard's neighbors in a leafy, suburban part of Racine is Kelly Gallaher, a Democrat. Gallaher is energetic and active in local political activism. She used to live in Wanggaard's district, but she was drawn out of it and packed into a new Democratic district.

Wisconsin Sen. Van Wanggaard's leafy neighborhood in Racine, Wis. Ailsa Chang/NPR hide caption

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Ailsa Chang/NPR

The way the line separating these districts was drawn bothers her.

"These kids go to the same school, they have the same alderman, they go to the same churches, but they have been divided," she says. "And it's pretty clear that they've been divided for reasons of political expediency [rather] than for the wealth of the community."

In her new solidly Democratic district, she could show up to vote, or not, and the results would be the same. And her Democratic neighbors who are still in Wanggaard's district are so outnumbered now, she says, their votes don't matter either.

"When you live in a district which has been scientifically figured out in advance, it doesn't feel like when you walk in to vote that it is going to make any difference at all," she says.

"The truth is, Van Wanggaard — he's going to win, no matter what," she says. Before, she adds, "even when it [had] been a Republican in the office, I always felt like that person was going to listen to me because they really had to. Now I don't even think I would get a return phone call."

A secretive process

The district lines were drawn in secret in the law office of Michael Best & Friedrich in Madison. Republican lawmakers filed in one by one in the spring of 2011 to quietly sign off on the new maps.

"It was a short meeting, about five minutes," says Republican Dale Schultz, who was a state senator at the time. He had been in the state Legislature for decades, and was even once its Senate majority leader. But he says at that moment — in that room — he didn't realize how aggressively Republicans were using complex mapping models to engineer districts they could easily win.

"I didn't realize the power that was suddenly there and available to redraw these districts to such an immense advantage," Schultz said.

At the meeting, when he saw his new district, "It was obvious to me that I'd have no trouble getting re-elected." He OK'd the new district lines and signed a confidentiality agreement.

All of this was done in total secrecy.

Now that Schultz is retired, he is speaking out, arguing that this kind of partisan gerrymandering is bad for democracy and that district lines should be drawn by a nonpartisan, independent commission.

A political task

Most Republicans who are still in office in Wisconsin have adamantly defended the redistricting plan, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2013 that the maps are fair and that redistricting is a political task best left to politicians.

"The Wisconsin Constitution actually says that the Legislature shall be the ones who are in charge of redistricting," Vos said. He declined an interview with NPR this week.

He went on to say he doesn't want some faceless bureaucrat drawing district lines.

"I want to go in the other direction, which is to have elected officials make decisions, stand up for what they believe in, and then ultimately the voters will decide."

Gerrymandering is "about rigging elections," says former Wisconsin state Sen. Tim Cullen. "The elections are decided the day the map is drawn." Christina Cala/NPR hide caption

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Christina Cala/NPR

That's assuming the voters can decide. The districts have been drawn in such a way that voters who disagree with Republicans will find it very difficult to effect any change.

Dirty hands all around

"It's abuse of power. When you have total power you can't help yourself, I guess," says Tim Cullen, a Democrat and former state senator in Wisconsin. Cullen has teamed up with Schultz to speak out against partisan gerrymandering. NPR spoke to both in Milwaukee.

"We realize that it looks partisan — like the Republicans are bad guys in Wisconsin. And they were bad guys in Wisconsin," Cullen says. "But then you go out on the East Coast and you go to Maryland, you can go to Rhode Island, you can go to Massachusetts — the Democrats with all the power abused their power and gerrymandered."

Schultz says by making districts more politically homogenous, politicians have only intensified polarization.

Former state Sens. Dale Schultz, at podium, and Tim Cullen discuss gerrymandering in Wisconsin. Ailsa Chang/NPR hide caption

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Ailsa Chang/NPR

Former state Sens. Dale Schultz, at podium, and Tim Cullen discuss gerrymandering in Wisconsin.

Ailsa Chang/NPR

"At what point do you stop being a partisan and stand up and be a patriot?" Schultz asks. "I think the two of us saw the impact that this polarization and anger was having on our friends and our neighbors and we wanted to set an example. That's what we decided to do."

Firing up the crowd

The way they decided to do that is to go all around the state and speak together — a kind of bipartisan buddy tour.

On a recent Tuesday at the Washington Park branch of the Milwaukee Public Library, a few dozen people gathered to hear about gerrymandering.

"This is about rigging elections," Cullen told the crowd. "The elections are decided the day the map is drawn."

Schultz says the right to vote is at stake and this is the moment for the public to be engaged — the justices on the Supreme Court need to see that people care.

"These are people that do the best they can to apply the law. But as they discern what to do, they need to hear the voice of all of us," Schultz says.

The Supreme Court has been reluctant to weigh in on partisan gerrymandering in the past. But the people in that room are hopeful that — this time — their side will win.

All Things Considered Assistant Producer Christina Cala field produced and Supervising Editor Jolie Myers edited this story for broadcast.

Correction Sept. 29, 2017

A previous version of this story misspelled some references to Van Wanggaard's last name as Wanggard or Wangaard.