As Democrats have become ever more aligned with urban voters and Republicans with rural ones, these lopsided partisan results today are now a clear reflection in many states of the relative power of rural and urban voters.
Some of the disparities in Republican-controlled state legislatures simply reflect the geographic clustering of Democrats in cities, and are not a result of lines drawn in gerrymandering. Republicans are more evenly distributed across space, while Democrats tend to run up their votes in a smaller number of places. That geography doesn’t matter in statewide elections for offices like governor. But in legislative bodies, it does.
To Republicans in Wisconsin, the legislature is more representative precisely because it reflects that geography, to their advantage.
“The most positive spin you can put on it is that we have a system of geographic representation, and so it is true that our legislative bodies represent areas, not the statewide population,” said Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. “But obviously it also fits with a long history of demeaning or counting less the support that your opposition party has.”
Another way to put this is that, in some ways, we’ve designed systems that give rural voters disproportionate power as a feature, not a flaw.
“When we think about the federal government and the U.S. Senate, it’s clearly a feature,” said Tom Ivacko, the associate director of the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan. “Within an individual state, it’s a little bit of both. But I think the impact is corrosive in many ways to the democratic process over time. It certainly leaves many voters feeling like their vote doesn’t count.”
The argument that legislatures are somehow more representative — and closer to the people — would be more true, he said, if they weren’t so heavily gerrymandered, on top of the natural patterns in where voters live.