Wisconsin’s an example of gerrymandering to the extreme

Given President Barack Obama’s call in last night’s State of the Union address for changes to how legislative districts are drawn all across the nation, this article from The Isthmus in August 2015 seems appropriate, given that Wisconsin could stand as a national example of the negative impact of ultra-partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts.

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.

Wisconsin needs nonpartisan redistricting

This is great news for anyone who wants to see fair elections in our state.

A lawsuit filed by Democrats challenging Wisconsin’s 2010 political map reached a small milestone recently when it filed a rebuttal to state Republicans’ motion to dismiss the case. The Democrats also learned the names of the appeals court justices who would hear their case — known as Whitford v. Nichols — if it moves forward.

Sachin Chheda, director of the Wisconsin Fair Elections project, fully expects the case to get a hearing later this fall by an appeals court panel of three judges. The side that losses will probably appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has never ruled in a case challenging a political map due to overt partisanship, as this case does, Chheda said.

In the past, the U.S. Supreme Court has found maps unconstitutional for being drawn in a way that discriminated against minority voters or failed to uphold the principle of “one-person-one-vote.”

“We think we have a strong case (and) we hope to get passed the motion to dismiss and get to the trial stage so we can have a full examination of the issues,” he said. “We’re trying to establish a new Constitutional standing. The Supreme Court has said that there could be an instance in which a map is too partisan to be constitutional. They’ve never had a measurement by which they can make this judgment. We’re proposing that measurement.”

Chheda is hopeful that a fair and politically neutral map will be in place in time for the presidential election in November 2016.

I’ve been a proponent of nonpartisan legislative redistricting similar to what’s used in the state of Iowa, because it’s a model that makes a heck of a lot of sense.

In a locked windowless chamber across the street from the Iowa State House, three bureaucrats sequester themselves for 45 days every decade after census data is released. Their top-secret task: the “redistricting” of the state’s legislative and congressional boundaries.

But here, unlike in most other states, every care is taken to ensure the process is not political.

The mapmakers are not allowed to consider previous election results, voter registration, or even the addresses of incumbent members of Congress. No politician — not the governor, the House speaker, or Senate majority leader — is allowed to weigh in, or get a sneak preview.

I’d love to see Wisconsin implement a nonpartisan legislative redistricting system similar to Iowa’s, but I’d also like to see it as an amendment to Wisconsin’s state constitution.

Guest Blog: The Issue of Gerrymandering Legislative Districts in Wisconsin

A recent post from billmoyers.com was brought to my attention. It discusses the actions being taken by the Arizona Legislature to have the power to set Congressional boundaries instead of a non-partisan committee, actions including taking the case to the Supreme Court. The post enumerates a list of reasons why having partisan politicians deciding district boundaries are not in the best of public interest.

The issue in Arizona reminds me of what is going on in Wisconsin. Much has been talked about recently regarding the absolute power over the three branches of Wisconsin government the Republicans have obtained. One item that has been brought up repeatedly is the issue of re-drawing legislative districts for voting purposes. The state of Wisconsin is divided into 99 Assembly districts of roughly equal population. The Assembly districts are grouped by threes to form each Senate district. It is necessary to re-align the district boundaries after each U.S. Census to ensure the Assembly districts remain equally populated. In some states, this process is controlled by a non-partisan group that will not involve politics. In other states, the process is controlled by the political party in power. Wisconsin is one of those states.

From Webster Dictionary: To divide (a State) into districts for the choice of representatives, in an unnatural and unfair way, with a view to give a political party an advantage over its opponent.

When people in the Badger State discuss the issue of gerrymandering, they usually talk in qualitative terms. I wanted to devise a metric so the issue can be discussed in quantitative terms. This way the degree of which gerrymandering exists can be compared and contrasted over a period of time. The metric I came up with is something that is commonly used in statistical analysis – the p-value. In simple terms, the p-value states the probability an outcome is based on random chance or an assignable cause. The lower the p-value, the less likeliness of random chance and instead a greater chance a special cause influenced the result.

After the 2012 elections PolitiFact rated Sandy Paasch’s claim that Republicans captured more seats than Democrats despite being outpolled as “Mostly True”. PolitiFact mentioned it was somewhat misleading to compare total statewide votes when some elections went uncontested. I agree with PolitiFact in this case, I feel it is intellectual honest to analyze only contest with a candidate from the two major parties. So what I did was research previous year’s Assembly elections and analyze only the ones with a Dem and G.O.P. candidate.

I’ve laid out my findings in the following tables. The first column lists the year of the fall elections. The second and third columns list the ratio of the Dem vs G.O.P. vote, leaving out third party numbers. The fourth and fifth columns list the number of contested seats won by each party. The next column lists the calculated p-value, the statistic which determines the degree of gerrymandering vs random occurrence. A p-value of “100” indicated no gerrymandering – a perfect democracy, if you will. A p-value of “0” indicated perfect gerrymandering. A p-value of less than five states gerrymandering existed beyond a reasonable doubt.

In conclusion, looking at the p-values one can conclude beyond a reasonable doubt the Republican Party of Wisconsin has rigged the system to favor themselves.

2010 Census
One doesn’t need to compute a p-value. Just eyeball the numbers and it is clear something doesn’t pass the smell test.

Election Dem % Rep % D seats won R seats won p Favoring
2014 44.5 55.5 14 34 2 R
2012 45.3 54.7 16 56 0 R

2000 Census
Democrats have raised the red flag the last couple of years regarding the issue of gerrymandering, but in actuality it has been occurring for over ten years.

Election Dem % Rep % D seats won R seats won p Favoring
2010 45.1 54.9 24 44 8 R
2008 49.2 50.8 28 40 15 R
2006 49.0 51.0 23 37 15 R
2004 47.5 52.5 17 39 1 R
2002 47.4 52.6 18 30 13 R

1990 Census
The G.O.P. gained the upper hand with the 1996 elections and is still holding it 18 years later.

Election Dem % Rep % D seats won R seats won p Favoring
2000 48.1 51.9 23 35 16 R
1998 49.9 50.1 26 28 70 R
1996 45.9 54.1 28 41 32 R
1994 49.7 50.3 29 24 39 D
1992 51.1 48.9 31 29 84 D

1980 Census
In the issue of fairness, it’s not just the one political party that has done this. The Democrats also did this to a certain extent in the 70’s and 80’s.

Election Dem % Rep % D seats won R seats won p Favoring
1990 55.2 44.8 42 19 3 D
1988 52.0 48.0 37 34 90 D
1986 53.8 46.2 49 29 9 D
1984 49.2 50.8 39 45 27 R
1982 53.7 46.3 47 39 78 D

1970 Census
The Democrats controlled state politics in the 70’s. Govs. Lucy and Schreiber were Dems. They had the Assembly gerrymandered almost to he same extent as the Republicans have it today. Notice how many of the races were contested? The 1972 election saw 94 of 99 seats contested.

Election Dem % Rep % D seats won R seats won p Favoring
1980 52.2 47.8 42 26 9 D
1978 50.6 49.4 44 33 21 D
1976 57.8 42.2 58 25 2 D
1974 50.3 49.7 41 35 40 D
1972 54.0 46.0 59 35 7 D

All politics is cyclical. Will the Democrats ever again have the upper hand? Of course – but it may take 15 or 25 years for it to happen.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on redistricting reform: “no one cares”

Apparently Republican Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos doesn’t think redistricting reform is worth considering.

“Nobody cares,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, finally concluded earlier this week as he tried, repeatedly, to dismiss suggestions by the Wisconsin State Journal Editorial Board that he should convene a public hearing on redistricting reform.

“I hear from newspapers, I don’t hear it from any of the public,” added Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee, who was also present at the meeting.

Since Robin Vos seems to think “nobody cares” about real redistricting reform here in Wisconsin and Rep. John Nygren says he hasn’t heard from “any of the public,” I’d like to challenge those of you reading this to give Reps. Vos and Nygren a call, write them a letter, or shoot them an email and let them know that you care about redistricting reform.

Here’s the contact information for Reps. Vos and Nygren.

Rep. Robin Vos
Room 211 West
State Capitol
PO Box 8953
Madison, WI 53708

Toll Free: 888-534-0063
Madison Office: 608-266-3387
Home Phone: 262-514-2597
Email: rep.vos@legis.wisconsin.gov

Rep. John Nygren
Room 309 East
State Capitol
P.O. Box 8953
Madison, WI 53708

Telephone (608) 266-2343
Fax (608) 282-3689

Email: Rep.Nygren@legis.wisconsin.gov

Kathleen Vinehout: Let the People Speak on Nonpartisan Redistricting

From my email inbox comes Democratic State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout’s thoughts on nonpartisan redistricting.

“Look at this map,” the man directed. “There are lots of squiggly lines in Wisconsin and Illinois but Iowa has real neat boxes.” The maps he showed me were the lines of Congressional Districts in the three states.

For many years Iowa has used a nonpartisan process to draw the district lines for state and US elected officials. Wisconsin, controlled by Republicans, and Illinois, controlled by Democrats, still uses the old partisan system of drawing lines.

What seems to be an archaic state activity comes up more and more in my discussions with voters. The word “gerrymandered” has found its way into the Wisconsin lexicon in a big way.

Some say the word has its origin in an 1812 election when a Massachusetts newspaper accused then Governor Elbridge Gerry of creating district lines to help his party dominate the state Senate. One district in the map resembled a salamander. Combining Gerry and (sala)mander became a popular expression to describe the drawing of legislative districts to gain a political advantage.

Two hundred years later the process dominates Wisconsin political discussions.

During 2011 a law firm was hired by Republican leaders to maximize Republican advantage. Some lawmakers signed secrecy agreements under threat to see their new districts before the proposal was made public. Subsequent elections demonstrated the effectiveness of the maps in maintaining a Republican majority.

Statewide editorial boards criticized the process and called for public hearings on a bill I cosponsored to implement a nonpartisan process – like that used to create the neat boxes on the Iowa map. Republicans are loath to hold public hearings to change the process. They feel they won the right to draw districts and correctly counter that Democrats did not change the process when they had control.

A group of freshmen representatives, led by Eau Claire Representative Dana Wachs and Wausau Representative Mandy Wright are traveling the state holding public hearings to bring attention to a proposal that would put the nonpartisan redistricting question on the November 2014 general election ballot.

Announcing their efforts, Representative Wachs stated, “Attempts to fix our flawed, partisan system of redistricting have been ignored in the Legislature, so we feel that now is the time to give Wisconsin voters the chance to speak up.” I support this approach and signed on as lead author of this bill in the Senate.

Government reform groups suggested partisan redistricting is one cause of the current hyper-partisan environment. Jay Heck of Common Cause recently told the Chippewa Herald, “The current process has produced too many uncompetitive general elections in which the winners are really determined in partisan primary elections. This has often allowed the most extreme partisans from their respective parties to be elected. Bipartisan compromise becomes virtually nonexistent. Instead, we have bitter partisanship, paralysis and polarization.”

Representative Wright recently told Wisconsin Radio Network, “I actually have an unusual district, where’s it’s basically 50-50, and I have to be very conscious of listening to both sides of the aisle, and really actively seeking out ways that we can work together, and I appreciate that, and I think it’s a good thing but it’s never going to be resolved if I don’t have more of my colleagues that feel that same sort of pressure.”

Judging by the letters I’ve received, citizens’ support for a nonpartisan process runs deep. Some of those letters are sharply worded and deeply critical of the current process. For example, an Eau Claire man recently wrote me saying, “How can one defend a process that was done in the dark, in secret (even to having legislators sign secrecy contracts) at a cost of millions to taxpayers of Wisconsin, divided the citizens of Wisconsin and more – all for one and only one purpose – to allow representatives to choose their voters rather than the other way around for obvious political gain!”

Wisconsin does not allow direct legislation by ballot initiative – meaning a vote by the public would be advisory to the Legislature. But a lopsided public vote in favor of nonpartisan redistricting would send a strong message to elected officials they’d do well to heed.

For what it’s worth, I’ve long advocated that Wisconsin move towards a redistricting process similar to Iowa’s, which uses computer software (not partisan hacks operating outside the normal state government) to generate a proposed redistricting map, disregarding all factors except population.