Politicians refine methodto pick their own voters

by Bill Lueders Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

A Sept. 5 report on Wisconsin Public Television’s “Here and Now” program called Republican state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck’s district “a microcosm of the state of Wisconsin.”

That it is. The district, occupying parts of Rock and Walworth counties, is part urban, part rural, part old industrial (Beloit), part upscale tourist town (Williams Bay).

It’s also a microcosm of something else: the redrawing of voter boundaries for partisan ends. Hence WPT’s interest.

Loudenbeck was first elected, in 2010, to a district that included all of Beloit, a Democratic stronghold. She lost in the city but, “with the tea party wave at her back,” as WPT reporter Zac Schultz put it, carried the outlying areas to snare 54 percent of the total vote.

Then came the eruptions of 2011, over curbing collective bargaining for public employees and cutting funds to public schools. Loudenbeck backed these changes, along with a new state voter ID law. Democrats warned that she would pay in the 2012 election, a consequence Loudenbeck was prepared to accept.

“I was very aware that there were people that were going to be unhappy,” Loudenbeck told WPT. “I didn’t have an expectation of winning a second time.”

But she did win, by an even greater margin of 56 percent, after Republicans oversaw a secretive and costly redistricting process, after the last 10-year census. Loudenbeck’s new district kept her hometown of Clinton but included less than half of Beloit and contained, by her account, “about 50 percent new people.”

Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, a prominent proponent of nonpartisan redistricting, told WPT, “When the Republicans gerrymandered the state, they really took care of Rep. Loudenbeck.”

Loudenbeck finds this laughable, noting that hypothetical nonpartisan maps produced by a state agency at Cullen’s behest split these districts in a similar way. But Schultz, in his report, said “the facts are clear: Amy Loudenbeck’s re-election prospects went way up with the change.”

Indeed, her margin of victory was almost exactly what strategists redrawing the voter boundaries predicted, in documents made public via a redistricting lawsuit. New computerized mapping technologies have allowed politicians to pick their voters with astonishing precision.

WPT, in a companion report, found that the strategists’ predictions in the more than 50 GOP-held Assembly seats facing Democratic challengers in 2012 were accurate, on average, to within a single percentage point.

The GOP incumbents won all but three of these races.

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