In spite of primaries held this week and others to follow in the days ahead, the signs of our imperiled democracy can be seen most anywhere.
In the purple battleground of Wisconsin, where Democrats control every elected statewide office, abortion is now illegal, without exceptions for rape or incest. It’s also a felony for doctors to perform abortions. Every clinic has suspended services, including the state’s Planned Parenthood chapter. Many providers have relocated across the Illinois state line instead.
That seems impossible for Wisconsin — where 58 percent of citizens believe abortion should be legal in all or nearly all circumstances. The reality, however, is that extreme partisan gerrymandering has transformed Wisconsin and other moderate states like Ohio into something resembling Alabama and Mississippi.
There’s next to nothing that voters can do about it.
Voters have spent the past decade trying to overwhelm or out-organize sophisticated gerrymanders with big blue waves. The redistricted maps designed to benefit Republicans are a seawall that withstands any surge. In these states, citizens have so little control over their elected officials that the states can’t honestly be described as democracies at all.
In 2010, Republicans spent tens of millions on a bold strategy called REDMAP, short for the Redistricting Majority Project, designed to capture swing-state legislative chambers ahead of the decennial redistricting. They flipped chambers in Wisconsin and Ohio, but also Michigan, North Carolina, Floridaunarmed and Pennsylvania — and haven’t lost a single one since, even when Democrats earn hundreds of thousands more votes.
A decade later, it’s clear that the 2010 election was the most consequential in modern American history and gave birth to an era of entrenched Republican minority rule that will stretch for a generation in Wisconsin and many other competitive and even blue-leaning states.
After all, Wisconsin might be our most closely divided state. Its legislative maps, rigged by Republicans in 2011 so that the GOP could hold the state Senate and Assembly even when Democrats won as much as 54 percent of the statewide vote, haven’t reflected the state’s actual balance for more than a decade.
The policy consequences of this imbalance are profound. Wisconsin’s law banning abortion dates back to 1849. As the threats to Roe mounted in federal courts, majorities of voters had no road to convince a gerrymandered legislature to modernize a statute from the days before the Civil War.
When the Dobbs decision arrived in June — and Justice Samuel Alito disingenuously insisted the court was less overturning Roe than returning the issue to the states — Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, called a special session of the Legislature to debate abortion’s future in Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s Legislature convened the session, then promptly gaveled out, without any debate at all.
This is the behavior of politicians who need not be accountable to voters. And it has become a dreary, predictable ritual here, whether the issue is background checks for guns, voting by mail during a pandemic, or social justice after Kenosha police in 2020 shot a Black man several times in the back. Even when polls show 80 percent of Wisconsin voters want action on these issues, lawmakers defy democracy and remind voters than they have only one actual choice: GOP rule.
It’s not just Wisconsin. In Michigan, where almost 58 percent of voters opposed overturning Roe, the decision reactivated a 1931 law that banned abortions. The state’s gerrymandered, GOP-controlled Legislature — Democrats have won more votes for the state house every election since 2012 but never won a majority of seats — has blocked a new law more in line with public opinion and forced the issue into the courts, where in recent weeks access and legality has changed by the hour.
In Ohio, extreme gerrymandering has dyed a once-national bellwether a shade of red much deeper than public opinion.
Ohio voters overwhelmingly backed two initiatives to reform redistricting and end this cycle of extremism; politicians ignored them and the new laws, even under repeated orders from the state’s supreme court. Now Ohio is one of four states, all dominated by Republicans, where elections will be held this fall under maps that have been declared unconstitutional.
And of course, it’s not just abortion rights. Over the past decade, gerrymandered state legislatures have enacted legislation on voting rights, guns, labor, the environment, transgender bathroom access, and so much more, regardless of public opinion. In generally blue-leaning Michigan and Pennsylvania, as well as purple Florida and North Carolina, only Democratic governors elected mid-decade have prevented hard-right GOP rule.
Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court will hear a case from North Carolina this fall that could hand state legislatures even more power — perhaps unfettered power, free from any gubernatorial veto or state supreme court oversight — over election law, legislative maps, and potentially the awarding of electoral college votes. This would put the GOP in charge of every swing state, from Wisconsin to Arizona. Any uprising after the 2024 election would be technical, bloodless, and coldly efficient.
Democracy, certainly, will be on the ballot in 2022 and 2024. But in state after state, our crisis of democracy has already arrived.
David Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”