Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin who have moved aggressively to steamroll voters and strip power from incoming Democratic officials appear confident that they will pay no political price, and many analysts seem to concur.
After all, state legislators won’t face re-election for another two to four years, and electoral maps gerrymandered to heavily favor Republicans won’t be redrawn until after 2020. That’s a long time in politics, and it would be easy to assume that protesters now crowding the state capitals in Lansing and Madison will by then have moved on.
But that assumption overlooks two powerful lessons from the recent midterms: One, that gerrymandering can backfire, particularly when the political winds shift dramatically. And two, that voters are increasingly fed up with assaults on democracy. The more Republicans take aim at voting rights, judicial independence, campaign-finance disclosure, and popularly-approved ballot initiatives, the bigger the anti-GOP backlash promises to be. The fallout could hit not just state houses but also Capitol Hill, where Democrats just regained the House with 40 seats thanks in part to a popular anti-corruption message.
The recent power grabs in Michigan and Wisconsin mimic earlier, similar moves in North Carolina, and echo President Donald Trump’s anti-democratic instincts at home and abroad. They are also part of a much broader GOP movement to create what Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have called “laboratories of autocracy” in the states. From packing the courts to purging the voter rolls and penalizing public protests, Republicans have not been shy about rigging the rules.
But the recent Midwest maneuvers have been particularly blatant, involving 11th-hour lame-duck legislation to undermine both incoming Democratic governors and popular ballot measures. In Michigan, pending legislation would strip power from incoming Governor Gretchen Whitmer and other Democratic officials. It would also authorize GOP legislators to intervene in court cases, weaken campaign-finance enforcement, and water down several ballot measures, including one that put redistricting in the hands of an independent commission.
“To use legislative tricks to avoid the will of the people is just wrong,” says Rebekah Warren, a Democratic Michigan state senator who says she’s receiving hundreds of phone calls and more than 1,000 emails a day from incredulous constituents. “It’s just not what I believe our representative system is supposed to be. I worry about the long-term health of our institution.”
In Wisconsin, GOP lawmakers have moved to curtail the authority of incoming Democratic Governor Tony Evers, seize control of a controversial economic development agency, and limit early voting, which tends to favor Democrats. GOP Governor Scott Walker has dismissed the uproar as “hype and hysteria” driven mostly by “fundraising for political purposes.” But Evers may file suit if Walker signs the bills into law. GOP Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who has a reputation for political independence, has been noncommittal about whether he will sign lame-duck legislation.
Republicans in both states may weather the storm, thanks to the GOP’s sophisticated gerrymandering in 2010. But the recent midterms demonstrated both the advantages and the limits of gerrymandering for the GOP. Republicans who spread their voters over as many districts as possible can end up with support that is broad but not deep, leaving them vulnerable to anti-incumbent fervor, notes Michael Li, senior counsel for the democracy program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.
Since GOP-drawn maps took effect in 2011, the party has lurched to the right, from “faint dog whistles” to “wholesale nationalism,” Li notes. “These districts are not designed in many cases to elect the Republicans of today, and if they continue to engage in behavior that subverts democratic norms, they may be in for a shock.”
In the recent midterms, several Democrats won in strongly GOP districts gerrymandered for Republicans, including the Eighth and 11th Districts of Michigan, the First District of South Carolina, the Fifth District of Oklahoma, and the Seventh and 32nd Districts of Texas. House Democrats in part credit their anti-corruption platform, and have pledged to approve HR 1, a reform package built on voting rights, campaign finance, redistricting, and ethics changes, as their first order of business in January.
“It’s folks from across the political spectrum who are demanding this,” said Maryland Democrat John Sarbanes, who chairs the House’s Democracy Reform Task Force, at a Capitol Hill press conference last month. “It’s not just Democrats. It’s independents, it’s Republicans.”
Ballot initiatives to end gerrymandering and place redistricting into the hands of independent commissions also won overwhelming bipartisan support in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah this year. Of course, GOP Michigan lawmakers are already pushing back—just as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, can be counted on to scuttle any democracy overhaul that passes the House.
But once-arcane topics like campaign financing and gerrymandering are starting to resonate with voters, who in one recent poll ranked “corruption in Washington” as the “most important” issue for candidates to address. Some argue that the backlash against GOP power grabs may play out on the national stage, as the fight for political advantage in crucial Midwestern states stretches into 2020. By then, GOP state legislators may wish they hadn’t been quite so quick to slap voters in the face.
This article has been updated.