Debate intensifies over redistricting

Does every vote count in Wisconsin?
Debate intensifies over redistricting

A lawsuit in federal court in Madison claims the answer is “no.” The claim from a group of Wisconsin Democrats comes as a growing number of court decisions, including a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, indicates legislators could soon be forced out of the business of drawing their own districts.

Both parties have engaged in gerrymandering at one time or another in history. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial this summer noted, “If the Whigs were still around, they’d do it, too.” In 2011, when it was time to draw the most recent maps for Wisconsin, Republicans happened to be in charge, and the lawsuit argues it made us one of the most gerrymandered states in the country.

Lawmakers do one of two things to gerrymander districts: They split voters from the opposition party among a number of districts so they can’t reach a majority (called cracking), or they crowd them into fewer districts to limit the number of candidates they can elect (called packing). The result in either case is wasted votes, those a candidate doesn’t need to win a district.

So what makes our current map worse than past ones? Democrats argue it comes down to what’s known as an efficiency gap (this requires some math). Take the difference between wasted votes by both parties, then divide that number by the total number of votes cast. The result represents the percentage of legislative seats a party wins that it would not have won if districts were drawn more fairly. The efficiency gap was ten percent for Assembly Republicans in the last election and thirteen percent in 2012, which the lawsuit says makes the maps the most partisan in modern U.S. history.

The Wisconsin lawsuit is one of many disputes nationwide over how those in power choose to draw districts. Most recently, and perhaps a sign of things to come, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed more than a dozen states’ use of independent commissions to draw congressional districts. At issue in that case was Arizona, where voters amended the state constitution to create an independent commission in 2000 and Republicans challenged its authority to draw the map. Its members included two Republicans, two Democrats and an independent chairperson. The districts they drew yielded four safe GOP seats, two safe Democratic seats and three competitive races.

Senator Dave Hansen, a Democrat from Green Bay, has proposed a bill to pattern Wisconsin’s redistricting process after Iowa’s. There, map makers from an independent government agency don’t consider election results, voter registration information or where congressional incumbents live (all things that clearly factor into Wisconsin’s current process). Wisconsin U.S. Representative Reid Ribble, a Republican, co-authored bipartisan legislation that would require that states establish independent commissions to do the actual drawing of lines, put redistricting information online and collect public comments before maps can be approved.

These efforts have not gained much traction. It appears more likely that change will come because the courts dictate it.