Gerrymandering has left voters with just four competitive races for the Legislature across all of south-central Wisconsin this fall.
That’s a travesty that weakens our democracy by making elected officials less responsive to the public.
Following the 2020 census, the Republicans who control the Legislature again drew Assembly and Senate districts to their partisan advantage, all but ensuring they will hold power for another decade.
According to an analysis by Marquette professor John D. Johnson, only four out of nearly two dozen legislative districts across south-central Wisconsin favor one party or the other by less than 10 percentage points, based on voting data from recent elections. Statewide, the number of district’s within single-digit margins is just 21 out of 132, the professor’s research suggests.
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Some legislative districts may never be competitive, regardless of how the maps are drawn. Madison’s Isthmus, for example, is a hotbed of progressive activism that strongly favors Democrats. Similarly, conservative enclaves in Waukesha County overwhelmingly vote for Republicans.
But elsewhere across the state, as they redrew Wisconsin’s legislative maps in 2021, top Republican lawmakers and their expensive lawyers unfairly packed as many Democratic-leaning communities into the same districts as possible. They did so with surgical precision using computers and voting data. Another trick was to split some communities favoring Democrats to dilute their impact. The result is that more conservative voters are now in the districts that used to be competitive, giving the GOP an unfair and likely insurmountable advantage.
While the GOP has used partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin to unfairly insulate itself against disapproving voters, Democrats in states such as Illinois have done the same thing to bolster their power there. Gerrymandering needs to end, no matter which partisan side is doing it.
Because of the skewed maps, most primary elections in Wisconsin now favor the candidate who is the most loyal to each party’s narrow interests. Then, after winning the primary, these more polarizing candidates typically coast through the general election because their districts have been drawn to include more voters sympathetic to their partisan side. In this way, the unfair maps discourage independence and cooperation at the Capitol.
The solution is the Iowa model for nonpartisan redistricting, which has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades in the Hawkeye State. It also has produced more competition and choice for voters there. Iowa assigns the once-every-decade task of drawing new maps to a nonpartisan state agency. The maps must be redrawn following each major census to reflect population changes. In Iowa, the neutral mapmakers are forbidden from using past election data or even considering where incumbents live.
Over the last two decades, our Wisconsin State Journal editorial board has prioritized support for the Iowa model when making endorsements for the Wisconsin Legislature.
In that spirit, we interviewed all eight candidates in the four competitive races for the Legislature across south-central Wisconsin on the Nov. 8 ballot. They’re all good people.
Yet the four listed here have earned our endorsement for their independence, priorities and support for nonpartisan redistricting. They are more willing to bridge the increasingly fierce and unproductive political fights at the statehouse.
AssemblyDistrict 33 Don Vruwink
This incumbent Democratic lawmaker is hustling to get to know new voters in a district that Republicans have dramatically redrawn to try to defeat him. Vruwink, 70, of Milton, is easily one of the most cooperative Democrats in the Legislature, often working with Republicans to try to get legislation passed. Vruwink is a retired teacher, successful coach and former school board and city council member. He also grew up on a dairy farm, so he understands agriculture, an important part of the economy in this district that includes parts of Rock and Jefferson counties. Vruwink definitely favors the Iowa model for nonpartisan redistricting, and his reelection will help ensure that Republicans don’t win a veto-proof majority in the Assembly. Most Wisconsin voters appreciate some balance in state government to avoid extremes. Vruwink will help provide that. His solid opponent, Scott Johnson, 68, of Jefferson, is a farmer who has served on the Fort Atkinson School Board for 15 years. Johnson favors nonpartisan redistricting, which we appreciate. Like Vruwink, Johnson is a model of civility. Yet Vruwink is the better choice because of his proven record of hard work and bipartisanship.
District 49 Travis Tranel
A Republican lawmaker from Cuba City for the last dozen years, Tranel has been an engaging and reasonable representative for Grant and parts of Richland and Lafayette counties. Tranel was one of the first Republican lawmakers to cosponsor the bill for nonpartisan restricting. He talks about seeing how well it works in Iowa, which borders his district. He’s a farmer who understands and advocates for agriculture. He wants to invest more in public schools. He touts himself as someone who lets Republican leaders in Madison know when their ideas won’t work in the real world. Tranel is stricter on abortion than we would prefer. Yet he wants to allow more exceptions to Wisconsin’s rigid and outdated ban. His opponent, Lynne Parrott, a Democratic from Platteville, is championing abortion rights, which we appreciate. She moved to Platteville in 2017 and is a pastor at a local church. She has been a member of the Platteville City Council for a year, giving her some public service experience. Parrott shows promise. Yet we recommend sticking with Tranel because of his solid record and the moderating influence he has among Republicans in charge. Even his opponent has only good things to say about him.
District 51 Todd Novak
This Republican incumbent is arguably the most independent lawmaker at the statehouse, voting against his party’s budget after winning election in 2015, and opposing the Foxconn fiasco. Novak, 57, grew up on a farm in this district that includes parts of Iowa, Green, Lafayette, Richland and Sauk counties. So he’s a knowledgeable advocate for agriculture. He’s also been the mayor of Dodgeville, giving him insight into how local government works and can improve. His top priorities include increasing state aid to local schools and municipalities. Before his political career, Novak was an editor for the Dodgeville Chronicle. He’s a champion of open government and told us he wants to correct a 4-3 decision by the state Supreme Court that lets government officials dodge legal bills when they refuse to release public records and are sued. Novak was one of the first Republicans to sign on to the nonpartisan restricting bill that mirrors Iowa’s proven model. Novak is the first openly gay Republican in the Legislature, which broadens his party’s perspective. He’s been an effective advocate for water quality. His opponent, Leah Spicer, 29, of Avoca, grew up in the district, runs a restaurant and has been an interim town clerk. Like Novak, she favors nonpartisan redistricting. Spicer would be a better advocate for abortion rights, though Novak wants to add more exceptions to the state’s strict ban. Both candidates are engaging and will work hard for their constituents. We recommend Novak because of his proven independence, greater experience and know-how.
SenateDistrict 17 Pat Skogen
In the final competitive race across south-central Wisconsin, Pat Skogen, 69, of Monroe, is touting her “old-fashioned values” and support for rural communities in a spirited challenge to incumbent Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green. The former special education teacher and organic dairy farmer wants to restore abortion rights in Wisconsin. Women and their doctors, she says, should make such difficult and personal decisions — not state lawmakers. Unlike Marklein, Skogen definitely favors nonpartisan redistricting. Marklein makes weak excuses for going along with gerrymandering. Skogen has lived in three of the eight counties that make up District 17 in southwest Wisconsin. She comes off as a hard worker with an open mind who will strive to represent everyone. Marklein, 68, an accountant, is smart about money and sits on the Legislature’s budget committee, providing the district with a powerful advocate at the Capitol. Yet Marklein supported excessive public subsidies for the Foxconn flop. He’s likeable but hasn’t shown much independence. Skogen deserves a chance to serve because of her broader perspective and stronger advocacy for funding rural schools.
In this Series
See who the Wisconsin State Journal is endorsing in today's election
Tony Evers seeks the endorsement of the State Journal editorial board
Our endorsement: Mandela Barnes is so much better for Wisconsin than Ron Johnson
Mandela Barnes on the climate, cash bail and the first thing he would do without the filibuster
- 7 updates