Data Wonk

North Shore Special Elections Show Impact of Gerrymandering

Packing-and-cracking allowed Republicans to keep control of seats that were trending Democratic.

By - Aug 10th, 2023 03:25 pm
Dan Knodl. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch.

Dan Knodl. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Watch.

Two special elections throw light on political trends in Milwaukee’s northern suburbs. The also demonstrate the power of gerrymandering using a “packing and cracking” strategy.

No partisan elections were scheduled for this year in Wisconsin. Nevertheless, two special elections took place in Milwaukee’s northern suburbs. Both resulted from the resignation of Alberta Darling, the long-time Republican state senator in the 8th Senate District. The first election was an April contest to fill the last two years of her term.

The April election was won by Republican Dan Knodl, a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly. This triggered a second election, to fill Knodl’s remaining term in the 24th Assembly District.

What do these election results say about the trends in Milwaukee’s northern suburbs? I will start with the Assembly election, even though it came later. With elections every two years, Assembly elections generate more data than four-year elections for senators.

The chart below shows the vote since 2018 in the 24th Assembly District. In 2018, the Republican beat the Democrat by about seven percentage points. Two years later the Republican margin had shrunk to three points. If this trend had been allowed to continue to 2022, the seat would have flipped Democratic. Instead, the Republican margin jumped to 22 points.

What explains the apparent Democratic collapse in 2022? The most likely answer is redistricting that protected Republicans. Following the 2020 Census, the Wisconsin Supreme Court selected the redistricting plan proposed by Republicans in the legislature. Although the Supreme Court claimed that it chose the new map because it made the least changes to the old map, it had the effect, and probably the intention, of increasing the Republican grip on District 24.

Voting for Assembly District 24

Voting for Assembly District 24

It did this by redrawing district boundaries so that Brown Deer, River Hills, and Glendale were no longer in District 24. All three of these municipalities have become much more Democratic in recent years. In the 2020 election, 68% voted for the Democratic candidate, compared to 32% for the Republican. Excluding these north shore communities substantially reduced the Democratic share of the vote.

Voters in the three communities were moved to districts that were already heavily Democratic. Glendale was moved to the 10th Assembly District. Joe Biden received 91% of the vote in District 10. There was no Republican 10th District candidate in the 2022 election, reflecting the district’s Democratic lean.

Brown Deer and River Hills were switched to the 23rd Assembly District. In the 2020 presidential election Biden received 71% of the vote in District 23. In 2022, the Democratic candidate won 63% of the vote in this district. Thus, the addition of more Democrats to these districts made no difference in the outcome of the election.

These actions point to a “packing and cracking” strategy. In packing, areas like the three north shore communities that vote for the opposing party are packed into districts that are already strongly supportive of that party. This creates an opening – cracking – to move areas that support the party doing the redistricting into a district that needs shoring up, such as the 24th.

Turning to Senate District 8, the graph below shows the vote over several recent elections. As mentioned, Darling had held this seat for years and it has seemed safely Republican. The 2016 election is not shown because no Democrat chose to run for the seat.

Four years later, in 2020, a Democrat did run for the seat, but lost by 8.5 percentage points. This was under the 2010 district map.

The next election shown in this graph, in 2022, came in the middle of Darling’s term, so there was no election for the 8th Senate District seat. Instead, I used the total vote in the three assembly districts – 22, 23 and 24 – which together make up the 8th Senate District.

The partisan percentages shown in the graph for 2020 and 2022 are almost identical, suggesting nothing changed. As mentioned earlier, all of the voters in the three north shore communities were shifted out of the 24th Assembly District. However, about half of these voters were moved to the 23rd Assembly District. Since the 23rd Assembly District is contained within the 8th Senate District, the effect of the move on the partisan balance is less for the 8th Senate District than it is for the 24th Assembly District.

Voting for Senate District 8

Voting for Senate District 8

In comparing the election results in 2022 with those from 2020, the casual observer might conclude that support for Democrats went down based on results from the 24th Assembly District or flat-lined based on the 8th Senate District. However, these two districts are case studies of the effectiveness of packing and cracking.

Without this packing and cracking, how would the vote have gone in 2022? A very rough estimate can be gained by reversing the cracking and packing. Start with the actual 2022 vote, add in the votes from Brown Deer and Glendale, and then subtract the votes needed to bring down the count to the average size of an Assembly or Senate district.

The special elections held this year give evidence that Senate District 8 and Assembly District 24 continue to tighten in just the few months between the November 2022 election and the special elections in April and July of 2023. In the 24th Assembly District, the gap between the Democrat and Republican candidates dropped from 22 to 7 percentage points. In the 8th Senate District, it dropped from 8.5 to 1.7 percentage points.

The fall in the Senate district is particularly striking. A possible contributor is the abortion issue. The Senate election shared the ballot with the election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which served as something of a referendum on abortion and was won by the liberal candidate.

Categories: Data Wonk, Politics

2 thoughts on “Data Wonk: North Shore Special Elections Show Impact of Gerrymandering”

  1. gerrybroderick says:

    The republican’s ‘stacked deck’ will soon be remedied by the suit now pending before the newly reformed State Supreme Court.Then we’ll see what the will of the people really looks like. In the interim we will predictably be treated to GOP hypocritical howls berating Democrats for “undermining the foundations of democracy.”

  2. kenyatta2009 says:

    finally we are going to get fair election maps.

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