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.