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Report finds gerrymandering has been used to punish or reward politicians in Milwaukee and other Midwestern cities

Word or phrase Gerrymander in a dictionary
sharaf maksumov
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Word or phrase Gerrymander in a dictionary.

For the past decade, gerrymandering has come to define our political landscape. Gerrymandering is when district lines are drawn to political advantage or disadvantage a party or politician. Although gerrymandering is always political, it’s not always partisan.

A new report from the University of Chicago analyzes how three cities — Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Chicago — have historically used gerrymandering as a way to punish political speech and reward political favors.

Robert Vargas is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, and he led the research team writing the report on gerrymandering in local governments.

"The best analogy to make sense of it is to think of it as a club that's regulating its membership and punishing some of its most outlandish members," says Vargas. "Because in cities, one political party tends to be dominant -- it being the Democrats."

According to Vargas, in Chicago and St.Louis, politicians who speak out against racial discrimination and gentrification in Black and brown communities were penalized through redistricting.

"Their districts have been moved from one part of the city to the other, which effectively cuts them off from their core constituency and makes it difficult for them to run for office in the new district," says Vargas. "Also, the area that was left behind, their former constituency, was broken up into multiple districts. So this is a way of effectively coursing city council members into early retirement or just eradicating them politically."

In Milwaukee, Vargas says it's difficult to know if redistricting has been historically done as political punishment, in part because until the 1990s the city did not keep records on the race of voters. But these researchers were able to find an example where the city rewarded politicians for bringing in more white residents.

In the 1950s, Milwaukee gained an influx of African American residents. Vargas says that concerns over the declining property tax and an influx of African Americans into the city triggered many white residents to move to the suburbs.

"What unfolded in Milwaukee was what we call transactional redistricting, where Milwaukee was essentially giving away a seat and award to suburbs that it was trying to annex as part of this negotiation of terms for the towns of Lincoln Granville to enter the city of Milwaukee," says Vargas.

Vargas says understanding the different types of redistricting is incredibly important because the topic is related to race and economic development.

"I hope that this kind of work could help both scholars, journalists, and citizen groups ask the right questions," says Vargas. "To question the logic and push to make the remapping processes as transparent as possible, both from local governments sharing data...for the public to have as much say on the process as possible."

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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