Data Wonk

Why GOP Redistricting Gambit Failed

Last minute Republican legislation based on Evers' plan vetoed by governor. Why?

By - Feb 2nd, 2024 03:33 pm
Assembly Bill 415 Assembly District Map.

Assembly Bill 415 Assembly District Map.

On December 22 the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the current legislative maps are unconstitutional and must be redrawn. This meant the gerrymandered maps with a huge advantage for Republicans since 2011 would finally be overthrown. The current maps were created by Republican legislators after the 2010 census and then slightly amended after the 2020 census in line with an earlier conservative court majority ruling in favor of the “least change” to the maps. But a new liberal majority on the court, ruled in December that the maps were unconstitutional because they included isolated parts of legislative districts that were completely surrounded by other districts and disconnected to the main part of their own districts. Thus, they violated the state Constitution’s mandate that all districts must be “contiguous.”

Further, the new court majority rejected the “least change” standard and announced that the new maps should be neutral, to avoid giving an advantage to either party, and they solicited proposed new maps from parties to the case. 

This has left Republicans scrambling to find a way to preserve as much of their gerrymandered advantage as possible. In anticipation of this decision they introduced  Assembly Bill 415 (also called Senate Bill 488) on September 12 of last year. It was largely modeled on an Iowa law that gave the primary responsibility for redistricting to a nonpartisan state agency that was given three chances to win the approval of the Legislature. AB 415 was referred to the Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection Committee which passed amendments and held a public hearing on October 19, about a month after it was introduced.

But Governor Tony Evers announced he would veto AB 415. For the next three months, there was no action on the bill.

Meanwhile there were seven proposed legislative maps submitted to the Supreme Court, including one by Republican legislators and another by conservative groups that was very similar. Republicans could surely see that their maps, which still gave them a huge, gerrymandered advantage, were unlikely to be selected. So suddenly, on January 22 of this year, AB 415, the bill from back in September, was revived. It was withdrawn from the Senate’s Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection, re-referred to the Committee on Senate Organization and placed on the next day’s calendar.

But though it still carried the same bill number, Republicans had basically trashed it, and replaced it with a proposal based on the redistricting plan Evers had submitted to the high court on January 12.   

The following day, AB 415 was read a second time and amended by the Senate. The next day, following a partisan vote, the Assembly accepted the Senate’s amendment, approved the bill, and sent it to the Governor, all on the same day, at very high speed.  

What accounts for the legislature’s sudden alacrity in passing AB 415? My guess is the Republican leadership became spooked by uncertainty as to which plan the Supreme Court would pick. And of the five maps proposed by opponents of the gerrymander, Evers’ plan it may have been viewed as the least threatening. In addition, they may have speculated that the governor would feel obligated to sign maps based on his proposal.

But Senate Republicans undercut this strategy when they amended AB 415, presumably to make sure no incumbent Republican senators were put in the same district.

Which gave an opening for Governor Evers to veto a plan very close to what he had submitted to the high court. His January 30 veto offered a message concentrating on the Senate’s last-minute amendment aimed at protecting Republican incumbents:

This bill prioritizes protecting incumbent, gerrymandered legislators by making their future campaigns more convenient for them, not better for the constituents they serve. Moving legislative district to ensure Republican-gerrymandered incumbents are better positioned to retain political power does not help root out gerrymandering from our democracy; it further entrenches it.

He also pointed to errors made because of the “rushed process.” He pointed to Assembly Districts 88 and 93 which “contain non-contiguous territory,” probably caused by the Senate’s effort to protect incumbents. The arrows in the portion of the map below point to the noncontiguous part (lower left) of District 88 (upper right).

Noncontiguous part (lower left) of District 88 (upper right).

Noncontiguous part (lower left) of District 88 (upper right).

Despite those problems, the AB 415 map earned scores on the website Dave’s Redistricting that were about the same as those as those given to the original Evers proposal, as illustrated by the next chart. This chart shows the scores given to the seven maps proposed for the Wisconsin Assembly along with the AB 415 map. They are listed in order of increasing proportionality. 

Starting from the left, the first set of columns are for the present Assembly map that was generated by applying the “least change” rule to the maps created in 2011 that locked in Republican dominance.

The next group is the scores for the map generated by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), based on ignoring data on partisan voting patterns. While exhibiting improved fairness, the map is still strongly favorable to continued Republican dominance of the Legislature.

The third set of columns show the scores for the AB 415 assembly map. All the five scores are the same as those for the following map, that proposed by the Governor. Like Governor Evers’ map, the next three maps come from opponents of the Wisconsin gerrymander. All four would be a marked improvement over the present maps. Nevertheless, they would still leave an environment more favorable to Republicans than Democrats. 

Rating of Proposed Assembly Maps

Rating of Proposed Assembly Maps

That it is possible to develop a more neutral environment is shown by the final set of columns, for a map generated by UWM professor Matt Petering. This map, however, was removed from consideration by the state Supreme Court when it decided to limit map submissions to the petitioners, intervenors, and respondents. I think I understand the reason—the justices feared an avalanche of district map proposals– but I still find it disappointing. In any case, it suggests that more improvement is possible. 

The next chart shows the scores for the state Senate districts. As before, the AB 415 scores are almost identical to those for Governor Evers’ maps. And as before, the Petering map is the top scorer both for proportionality and compactness.

Ratings of Proposed Senate Maps.

Ratings of Proposed Senate Maps.

Finally, the next chart shows efficiency gaps for both Wisconsin Assembly and Senate districts. The efficiency gap model is based on the notion that there are two kinds of wasted votes. The first kind are those that exceed the number needed to win a race. The other kind are the votes made for losing candidates. A successful gerrymander makes one’s opponent waste more votes than one’s own side. The efficiency gap is calculated by adding up the votes wasted by each party, subtracting one from the other, and dividing the difference by the total number of votes. By custom, efficiency gaps favoring Republicans are written as positive percentages; those favoring Democrats as negative.

Efficiency Gaps.

Efficiency Gaps.

Note that, with one exception, all the efficiency gaps in the chart are positive, meaning that they favor Republicans. Again, the efficiency gaps for the AB 415 maps are virtually the same as for the Evers maps, suggesting that the two would mostly have the same result.

The apparent willingness of Republican legislators to base AB 415 on a map originally offered by the governor suggests the GOP recognizes that the Wisconsin extreme gerrymander is on its last legs. However, the fact that most of the plans considered by the court still have positive efficiency gaps favoring Republicans indicates that the road ahead for Democrats will still be a challenging one. 

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Categories: Data Wonk, Politics

2 thoughts on “Data Wonk: Why GOP Redistricting Gambit Failed”

  1. TransitRider says:

    Has anybody figured out WHY various maps include small “islands” belonging to other districts? What is gained by such a small, remote piece of another district? Unless these islands are extraordinarily densely populated, they really don’t seem to help the gerrymander (and provide an easy avenue of attack). Do the islands contain the residence of some politician who wants to run in another district? Are they substantially different than the surrounding “non-island” areas?

  2. Bruce Thompson says:

    The islands mostly stem from cities and villages annexing non-contiguous land and the district map makers following suit. The constitution requires contiguous legislative districts, but not cities and villages.

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