The 2012 presidential year was a banner election for Democrats, who saw their standard-bearer Barack Obama beat Republican challenger Mitt Romney with 51.1% of the vote. Democratic candidates for the state Assembly did almost as well, capturing 50.7% of the statewide vote. Yet they won just 39% of Assembly seats.
How could Republicans win so many districts with so few votes? Because the 2010 redistricting they engineered used “packing” and “cracking” to frustrate the will of the voters: Some liberal-leaning seats were packed with an overwhelming percentage of Democrats, and others were cracked apart to create districts that leaned just rightward enough to make them safe for Republicans.
The result was that the average Democratic Assembly winner needed 37,300 votes to win office, and the average Republican winner needed only 23,166 votes.
Republicans have argued they simply redistricted as Democrats did in the past. In fact, 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. (And prior to 1970, the Republicans always held power in Wisconsin.)
Indeed, a new study by Simon Jackman, a political statistician at Stanford University, puts Wisconsin’s situation into stunning perspective. Jackman set out to measure the “efficiency gap” — the ratio of one party’s wasted vote rate to the other party’s wasted vote rate — over the last 42 years. Because complete data was not available in some states, 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 to 2014.
Looking at Wisconsin’s efficiency gap of 13% in 2012 and 10% in 2014, he concludes that no other redistricting in the nation generated “an initial two-election sequence” of efficiency gap scores as large as those in Wisconsin. In short, the level of gerrymandering in Wisconsin is “virtually without historical precedent” over the last 42 years, he concludes.
Armed with this research, 12 Democrats from across the state filed a federal suit challenging the 2010 redistricting in Wisconsin. Retired UW-Madison Law School professor William Whiford, the lead plaintiff, told the media that “when it comes to the state Assembly, our votes just don’t matter.”
The group, whose effort has gotten funding from the Joyce Foundation and other foundations, will not target only Republican gerrymandering, says Sachin Cheda, a Milwaukee-based Democratic consultant. “It is our intention to file suits in other states, like Rhode Island,” he notes, where Democratic gerrymandering resulted in Republicans winning 35% of the statewide vote yet gaining just 13% of the seats in the General Assembly.
Lawyers from the Wisconsin Department of Justice have already filed a motion to dismiss the suit, which will be heard by a three-judge panel from the U.S. District Court in Madison and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit based in Chicago. The DOJ argues the lawsuit presents a “political” question the court cannot answer.
The same argument was made — and rejected — when the U.S. Supreme Court made its watershed “one man one vote” decision in the 1964 Reynolds v. Sims case. Since then the prevailing rule has been that states were required to draw legislative maps with roughly equal numbers of residents. The one thing that’s changed since then has been the advent of computerized data, which “has allowed for much more sophisticated partisan gerrymandering,” Whitford has argued.
Attorneys working with the group of Wisconsin Democrats have concluded that four justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are receptive to overturning badly gerrymandered districting by states, and that swing Justice Anthony Kennedy has hinted he might consider doing so if there was any metric or standard by which to measure how egregious the gerrymandering is. The concept of an efficiency gap seems a rigorously objective way to answer that call.
DOJ lawyers contend that Democrats are disadvantaged because they are “naturally” packed into urban districts. But the court-ordered redistricting of 2000 had no problem creating districts where neither party had any such edge.
In an era of ultra-precise computerized data, the idea that redistricting can’t be done in a way that gives equal power to all voters is nonsense. Indeed, Jackman’s study shows that even before this, Connecticut’s redistricting provided no efficiency gap for either party, and the state has done so for 42 years. Even states like Illinois and Texas, typically stereotyped as rife with political corruption, 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% pro-Republican, and the average gap in Texas has been 3.2% pro-Democratic.
In short, Wisconsin’s current gerrymandering advantage makes it look far more corrupt than any state in America. That’s to our shame, and calls out for legal redress.
Bruce Murphy is editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.