The Most Gerrymandered State in America
Study shows Wisconsin most gerrymandered in 42 years. Case is filed in federal court.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren once called Baker V. Carr, the 1962 case which led to the “one-man, one-vote” rule, the most important of his tenure. That was saying quite a lot considering his was the court that handed down the watershed Brown decision desegregating America’s schools. But the Baker ruling would end the situation where California had one state senate district with 422 times more voters than the smallest senate district and states across the country had huge inequities. The court declared that all voters should be equal and have equal electoral power in a democracy.
Since Baker and the later Reynold v. Sims case, states were required to draw legislative maps with roughly equal numbers of residents that respected political subdivisions and didn’t discriminate against ethnic or racial minorities. But political parties are always looking for ways to maximize their power, even if it means undermining the principle of one person one vote, and the way to do that since Baker has been through more subtle forms of gerrymandering, aided in recent decades by computerized data.
The result can be seen in Wisconsin, where the Democratic Party won 53.5 percent of the vote statewide in 2012, but just 39 percent of seats in the Assembly. It can be seen in the disadvantage for the Republican Party in Rhode Island, where the GOP won 35 percent of the statewide vote but secured just 13 percent of the seats in the General Assembly.
Such improbable results come through skillful redistricting by the party in power to maximize its electoral advantage. They do this through “packing” and “cracking” districts. Republican leaders in Wisconsin packed Democrats into a few districts that made them highly partisan and thereby wasted a lot of Democratic votes. They also cracked or split formerly swing or Democratic-leaning districts into new districts that gave Republican candidates enough of a margin to be assured of victory.
The result is that, in 2012, the average Democratic Assembly winner needed 37,300 votes to win office, and the average Republican Assembly winner needed only 23,166 votes. That’s a far cry from one-person one-vote.
In Rhode Island the pattern was reversed, so that the packing and cracking resulted in Republican legislative candidates needing far more voters to win office than Democrats.
Two academics, University of Chicago Professor of Law Nicholas Stephanopolous, and Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of Chicago, helped created an approach to statistically measure the exact impact of this kind of redistricting. Their “efficiency gap” measures the ratio of one party’s wasted vote rate to the other party’s wasted vote rate.
Using this approach, Prof. Simon Jackman of Stanford University, a political statistician, has done a watershed study of all elections in the period since the 1970 census, the first census since one-person one-vote became the law of the land. Because full elections data was not available in some states and other local peculiarities, he had to eliminate nine states. The result was an analysis of the efficiency gap in 786 state legislative elections in 41 states from 1972-2014.
And what he found puts the Wisconsin situation into stunning perspective. Looking at Wisconsin’s EG (efficiency gap) of 13 percent in 2012 and 10 percent in 2014, he concludes that in “the entire set of 786 state legislative elections” in 41 states, no other redistricting generated “an initial two-election sequence of EG scores that are each as large as those observed in Wisconsin.” In short, the gerrymandering in Wisconsin as measured by the efficiency gap is “virtually without historical precedent,” he concludes.
Chheda and Earle were among a small group of Democrats, brought together by Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee), an expert consultant on redistricting, and including Milwaukee NAACP President James Hall, who began meeting to discuss Wisconsin’s lopsided redistricting some time ago and whether anything could be done about it. As the meetings went on, “We talked to academics and experts in the field, we looked at case law,” Chheda notes.
And they gradually formulated a plan which involved raising money from the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation and other funders, to build a team and pay for lawyers and research. Jackman’s study, for instance, was paid for by this grant money.
His study provides a window into American politics that often surprises. While Illinois and Texas are typically stereotyped as states where election corruption is rife, they have had efficiency gaps that are not all that large. Over the 42-year-period Jackman studied the average gap in Illinois has been 6.4 percent pro-Republican and the average gap in Texas has been 3.2 percent pro-Democratic.
The biggest efficiency gaps were in Georgia (20 percent pro-Democratic in 1984) and Delaware (18 percent pro-Republican in 2000). Both of these gaps came some years after the initial redistricting and over time, with population shifts, the inequity can grow larger or smaller.
Connecticut looks like the fairest state: it’s had almost no gap during the 42 years studied and has averaged a zero percent edge for either party.
As for the idea that Wisconsin’s Republicans are only doing what Democrats before them did, that couldn’t be more untrue. The state’s highest Democratic efficiency gap was 2 percent in 1994. The current Republican gap is five times higher than that and was seven times higher in 2012, when there was a higher turnout for the presidential year.
That’s not because of Democratic purity; the party simply never held all power. A split legislature drew the lines in 1971, and disagreements between the parties led to the courts making the decisions in 1981, 1991 and 2001. The result in all four cases was redistricting that had little or no edge for either party.
Nationally, Jackman found the efficiency gap “in the 1970s and 1980s appeared to slightly favor Democrats.” Since then the gap “trends in a pro-Republican direction” and the gaps after the 2010 elections were very high in numerous states. As partisanship has risen in America, that may be reflected in ever-more aggressive efforts to gerrymander districts.
In studying case law, Earle and other lawyers have concluded that four justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are receptive to the idea of overturning badly gerrymandered districting by states, and that swing justice Anthony Kennedy has also hinted he might consider doing so if there was any metric or standard by which you could measure how egregious the gerrymandering is. The concept of an efficiency gap seems a rigorously objective way to answer that call.
Indeed, it would result in both Republican and Democratic gerrymandering being overturned, and would be a way to assure that each person’s vote has equal power in elections. It would be quite remarkable if an effort launched in Milwaukee achieved such a result for the nation.