This article was originally published at ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
In the northwest corner of Wisconsin, the 73rd Assembly District used to be shaped like a mostly rectangular blob. Then, last year, a new map drawn by Republican lawmakers took effect, and some locals joked that it looked a lot like a Tyrannosaurus rex.
The advent of the “T. rex” precipitated dark times and perhaps extinction for local Democrats.
The new map bit off and spit out a large chunk of Douglas County, which tended to vote Democratic, and added rural swaths of Burnett County, which leans conservative.
The Assembly seat had been held by Democrats for 50 years. But after the district lines were moved, Republican Angie Sapik, who had posted comments disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement and cheered on the Jan. 6 rioters on social media, won the seat in November 2022.
The redrawing of the 73rd District and its implications are emblematic of the extreme gerrymandering that defines Wisconsin — where maps have been drawn in irregular and disconnected shapes over the last two decades, helping Republicans seize and keep sweeping power.
That gerrymandering, which stands out even in a country where the practice is regularly employed by both major parties, fuels Wisconsin power dynamics. And that has drawn national attention because of the potential impact on abortion rights for people across the state and voting policies that could affect the outcome of the next presidential election.
The new maps have given Wisconsin Republicans the leeway to move aggressively on perceived threats to their power. The GOP-controlled Senate recently voted to fire the state’s nonpartisan elections chief, Meagan Wolfe, blaming her for pandemic-era voting rules that they claim helped Joe Biden win the state in 2020. A legal battle over Wolfe’s firing now looms.
The future of a newly elected state supreme court justice, Janet Protasiewicz, also is in doubt. Her election in April shifted the balance of the court to the left and put the Wisconsin maps in peril. Republican leaders have threatened to impeach her if she does not recuse herself from a case that seeks to invalidate the maps drawn by the GOP. They argue that she’s biased because during her campaign she told voters the maps are “rigged.”
“They are rigged, period. Coming right out and saying that. I don’t think you could sell to any reasonable person that the maps are fair,” she said at a January candidates forum.
She added: “I can’t ever tell you what I’m going to do on a particular case, but I can tell you my values, and common sense tells you that it’s wrong.”
Given the usually staid campaign statements associated with state-level judicial races, her comments stood out.
But, by any number of measurements made by dispassionate researchers, the maps have, in fact, proven to be extreme.
The Gerrymandering Project at Princeton gives the Wisconsin redistricting an F grade for partisan fairness, finding Republicans have a significant advantage, as do incumbents. “Wisconsin’s legislative maps are among the most extreme partisan ones in the country,” the project’s director, Sam Wang, said in an email to ProPublica.
Wang argues that Wisconsin’s GOP has gone further than most states and engineered “a supermajority gerrymander” in the Senate. Republicans control 22 of 33 Senate seats, giving them the two-thirds required to override a gubernatorial veto. (In the Assembly, the GOP is still two seats short of a supermajority.)
“The resulting supermajority, immune from public opinion, can engage in extreme behavior without paying a price in terms of political power,” Wang warned in a Substack article.
In the two decades before the Republicans configured the maps to their advantage, the state Senate, in particular, was more competitive, and Democrats at times controlled it.
The state’s maps changed dramatically beginning in 2011 when the GOP gained control of the Legislature and Republican Scott Walker became governor. The party redesigned the maps again in 2021, further tweaking the successful 2011 template.
“The current maps, as currently constituted, make it virtually impossible for Democrats to ever achieve majority party status in the legislature,” said Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki of Milwaukee. “Even if they win statewide by like 10 points.”
State politics is now dominated by confrontation and stalemates, with the GOP pushing its agenda and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers regularly wielding his veto power to block Republican initiatives. Unless the maps change or Republicans win the governor’s office, there seems to be no end to this dynamic.
Republicans have argued that it is their right, politically, as the victorious party to craft the maps, and so far the maps have survived legal challenges.
“Our maps were adopted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court because they were legal,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a statement to ProPublica.
He added: “Republican legislative candidates do well in elections because we have good candidates who listen to their constituencies and earn the votes of Republicans and independents alike.”
Asked at a 2021 Senate hearing whether partisan advantage was the intent of the maps, Vos said: “There is no constitutional prohibition on that criteria, so yes, was partisanship considered as a consideration in the map? Yes, there were certain times that partisanship was.”
Basic goals set by state and federal law govern the drawing of districts. Among them: District lines should be contiguous and compact with equal numbers of people. The boundaries should not, where possible, split counties or municipalities.
But 55 of the 99 districts in the Assembly and 21 of the 33 in the Senate contain “disconnected pieces of territory,” according to the most recent complaint filed with the state Supreme Court by 19 Wisconsin voters. The suit argues that this should not be allowed, even when towns annex noncontiguous areas, creating islands or enclaves in districts.
“Despite the fact that our Assembly and Senate are meant to be the most direct representatives of the people, the gerrymandered maps have divided our communities, preventing fair representation,” said Dan Lenz, staff counsel for Law Forward, which brought the maps suit, in a statement to ProPublica. “This has eroded confidence in our electoral systems, suppressed competitive elections, skewed policy outcomes, and undermined democratic representation.”
The Impeachment Question
Protasiewicz’s election came after a hard-fought campaign, with both parties pouring in millions of dollars. Protasiewicz promised to recuse herself from any case brought by the Democratic state party, but not from all cases that might benefit Democrats.
Her victory meant conservatives lost control of the state’s highest court. It gave liberals hope that GOP initiatives, including some dating back to the Walker administration, could be reconsidered.
The court may be called upon to review key voting rules heading into the 2024 presidential election and to decide whether Wolfe keeps her role as administrator of the state elections commission. Also likely to come before the court is whether an 1849 abortion ban, reimposed by the overturning of Roe v. Wade, will stand. This week, after a favorable lower court ruling,Planned Parenthood resumed providing abortion services in the state.
Meanwhile, the possibility of the court striking down the maps, potentially loosening the Republicans’ grip on the legislature, sent the GOP looking for alternate ways to hold on to power.
Republican Sen. Dan Knodl first floated the idea in March of impeaching Protasiewicz — before she had even won.
Months later, after Protasiewicz was sworn in Aug. 1, Vos warned that she risked impeachment if she did not step away from the maps case.
Impeaching a justice who won by more than 200,000 votes, with over 1 million total cast for her, struck many as wildly inappropriate and undemocratic.
The reaction from some Wisconsinites was intense, with Democrats leading the outcry. “To threaten the ability of a duly elected justice who was overwhelmingly elected, functioning in her role, is nothing short of a denial of democracy,” said former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat from the Madison area who now leads the American Constitution Society, a legal advocacy group.
The state Democratic Party mobilized, launching a $4 million campaign to challenge the prospect of impeachment.
In the face of the backlash, Vos appeared to shift course, briefly. He proposed, in a Sept. 12 press conference, that Wisconsin adopt a system to configure maps based on an “Iowa model,” in which an advisory committee would help the state Legislative Reference Bureau, a nonpartisan government agency, set the boundaries, subject to legislative approval. Without public hearing or Democratic input, the GOP put forth a bill, which passed the Assembly last week, with only one Democrat in favor.
Evers opposed the plan, saying: “A Legislature that has now repeatedly demonstrated that they will not uphold basic tenets of our democracy — and will bully, threaten, or fire on a whim anyone who happens to disagree with them — cannot be trusted to appoint or oversee someone charged with drawing fair maps.”
Vos has made it clear that he is not abandoning impeachment. He announced last week he had assembled a panel of former justices to advise him on criteria for removing Protasiewicz.
Two Protasiewicz voters filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court last week asking the court to issue an injunction prohibiting the Assembly from impeaching Protasiewicz, or any other justice, without grounds. Protasiewicz recused herself. She told ProPublica she did not wish to comment for this story.
Wisconsin’s constitution allows for impeachment “for corrupt conduct in office, or for crimes and misdemeanors.” Protasiewicz has not been charged with any crime.
If the Assembly impeaches, it would then fall to the Senate to hold a trial and convict, forcing her from office.
If there is a vacancy on the court on or before Dec. 1, Evers would then choose a replacement to serve until the next election in April 2024, coinciding with the GOP primary for president. Evers likely would appoint another liberal-leaning judge.
But there is another scenario posited by political observers. The Senate could simply not take up a vote, leaving Protasiewicz impeached and in limbo. Under the state constitution, she’d be sidelined, unable to carry out her duties until acquitted.
That would leave the court with a 3-3 ideological divide, though conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn at times sides with the liberals.
Timing matters: Under state law, if Protasiewicz is removed or resigns after Dec. 1, Evers could appoint a replacement who would serve until 2031.
The only thing certain about the situation, it seems, is that those state statutes are being studied closely and that compromise on issues such as the district maps, abortion and voting are off the table.
Onions, Memes and Freedom
The dinosaur-shaped 73rd Assembly District was one of three in northwest Wisconsin that the Republicans flipped last year.
Besides Sapik, voters chose Republicans for the neighboring 74th Assembly District and the horseshoe-shaped Senate District 25. In each case, the Democratic incumbents bowed out.
Democrat Janet Bewley, a former state senator who declined to run again in 2022, watched the GOP mapmaking in that corner of the state up close. She said the changes led to small incremental gains for Republicans in various corners of the new maps — a couple dozen votes here and a couple dozen there. But they added up to defeat.
“They went down to the town level, to see how the towns voted,” she said, making it harder for Democrats.
Sapik, who makes a living shipping onions, had never run for public office before. She loved the new maps.
“I’ve said it before, but we really are in the Dinosaur District! I love the way the lines changed and I welcome everyone new into District 73!” Sapik wrote in a Facebook post during her campaign. “Burnett and Washburn counties, you are going to help turn this District red for the first time!”
In a podcast during her primary race in August 2022, Sapik said she decided to run because she opposed business shutdowns during the pandemic and mask mandates.
About the time she submitted her nomination papers, she said, she was interviewed by the state director of Americans for Prosperity, a political nonprofit established by right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch. Sapik won the group’s endorsement, and it spent about $40,000 advocating for her election, according to FollowTheMoney.org, a nonpartisan initiative that tracks special interest money in politics.
“I’m on that Freedom Train. I want less. I want less laws. And that was the number one reason that AFP likes me so much,” she said on the podcast.
She has vowed to be “a strong, positive voice for my community,” a diverse district that includes farmers, longtime manufacturers and shipbuilders, union members, and outdoors enthusiasts who prize strong environmental protections for Lake Superior. And she has promised to vote against “infringements against personal freedoms,” to promote tourism, and “bring back true American values.”
Sapik declined to speak with ProPublica for this story. In an emailed response to written questions, she sent a so-called “distracted boyfriend” meme and included a label claiming a ProPublica reporter was “writing lies about Wisconsin Republicans.”
The questions included requests for explanations of what’s behind some of her online comments.
Last summer, for instance, Sapik posted a video on Facebook for a campaign fundraising golf event that said: “Let’s get rid of Democracy; everyone in favor raise your hand!”
It elicited confusion among some followers.
“It’s a joke,” Sapik responded at the time.