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Geographer shares expertise on redistricting, gerrymandering

| Judy Berthiaume

When the U.S. Supreme Court announces its decision on Wisconsin’s gerrymandering case, one UW-Eau Claire faculty member will be paying especially close attention.

Dr. Ryan Weichelt, associate professor of geography and anthropology at UW-Eau Claire, has long studied elections and teaches a political geography course.

He also just completed a book chapter about redistricting and gerrymandering, with Wisconsin being a major focus of his writing.

The book, “The Changing World Language Map,” will be published later this year.

The editors asked Weichelt to contribute a chapter because of his research on electoral geography, and specifically his work studying elections in Wisconsin.

“Since I moved back to Wisconsin in 2009, I have been heavily engaged in studying election patterns in the Badger state,” Weichelt says. “After 2010 and the Republican wave that hit the state, it opened up an endless number of opportunities to study elections.”

While people often think of political scientists as the go-to experts on elections, geographers also have a great deal of expertise, especially around redrawing district maps and gerrymandering, Weichelt says.

“I am not sure anything is more spatial than redistricting,” Weichelt says. “The process is the manipulation of space to create a functional region. In this case, a political unit, and in most cases, having one member represent a given area.

“Gerrymandering takes this up a notch to the manipulation of space to give one party an advantage over another. Geographers are equipped to both understand spatial outputs and create them with advanced geospatial software.”

Regardless of what redistricting plans move forward, in the end they become maps, which require the expertise of geographers, Weichelt says.

“Maps are how geographers communicate,” Weichelt says. “If sound cartographic and spatial thinking is not applied, you end up with a bad map that can have serious implications. “

Weichelt — whose research is focused specifically on Wisconsin politics and elections — hopes that by contributing to the soon-to-be-published book, he can help educate people regarding the redistricting process.

“Too many people don’t understand it or think it doesn’t have an impact on their lives,” Weichelt says. “If the last eight years in Wisconsin have proven anything, it’s that gerrymandering has consequences — good or bad depending on how you look at it. The state legislature has been run by one party, and little, if any, strong bipartisan legislation has been passed. It has only deepened divides.

“If people are educated on the gerrymandering topic, they can put pressure on elected officials to provide open redistricting plans.”

In his book chapter, Weichelt tells the story of major legislative and legal actions and court cases that have defined the language used today regarding redistricting.

Weichelt’s chapter was written with education in mind, he says, noting that many people don’t understand the redistricting process.

The chapter lays out a quick history of the topic leading to where we are today in a way that will be helpful for anybody interested in the topic, he says. It also is a quick reference for the many courts cases and legislative acts that have helped define the process of redistricting and gerrymandering, he says.

While long interested in politics and elections, Weichelt began to pay closer attention to gerrymandering in Wisconsin after the 2012 governor recall election.

His interest grew even more given the results of the 2012 presidential election and the gubernatorial election in 2014, he says.

“I noticed, especially in rural areas of northern Wisconsin, a slow erosion of Democratic support,” Weichelt says.  “I believe one of the many contributing factors to this erosion was gerrymandering of legislative districts, both state and federal. Republicans gained more seats, and as time went on seats became incredibly safe, giving a bit more credence to those incumbents. Many of these happened to be Republicans. Many Democrats either gave up voting because their vote didn’t matter or voted for other candidates.”

While the Wisconsin Supreme Court case (Gill v. Whitford) has raised some awareness around gerrymandering, many people remain unaware or misinformed about the process or its potential impact, Weichelt says.

“In Wisconsin, almost anyone I talk to, students or residents, have very little understanding of the redistricting process and even less an understanding of the debate,” Weichelt says. “In the current political climate, it is often couched as Democrats crying foul after they lost. The lack of education is unfortunate because the results can have huge impacts on the lives of citizens at many levels.”

In addition to the book chapter on gerrymandering, Weichelt also is one of the editors of the recently released “Atlas of the 2016 Elections,” a book that uses a series of unique maps to help explain the surprising outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

“For some years, a small group of electoral geographers have been creating an atlas after each presidential election cycle,” Weichelt says. “These atlases contain maps and writings on a number of topics. For the 2016 election, I was one of the main editors.” 

Sam Loftsgaarden, a recent UW-Eau Claire graduate from Altoona, helped Weichelt collect data for the publication. Loftsgaarden also published his own atlas article, which was related to a congressional district in Minnesota.

Given the Wisconsin case before the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s an especially interesting time to be studying Wisconsin politics in general and gerrymandering in particular, Weichelt says.

He had hoped the court case would be decided before the mid-May deadline for his book chapter, but the timing didn’t work out.

“It is a bit sad the chapter won’t have an ‘ending,’” Weichelt says. “Though to be writing about this process while living the experience of gerrymandering firsthand is interesting, to say the least.  Needless to say, I will be watching it closely.”

Photo caption: Dr. Ryan Weichelt, who has long studied elections and teaches a political geography course, recently completed a book chapter about redistricting and gerrymandering, with Wisconsin being a major focus of his writing.