Limiting Gerrymandering on “Vote Efficiency” Requirement is Absurd

maxresdefaultGerrymandering opponents in Wisconsin believe they have come up with a fix to America’s highly polarized political system, end or limit gerrymandering.  Towards that end a group of plaintiffs in a Wisconsin based gerrymandering case, Whitford vs. Nichol, are seeking to establish a new national standard in limiting gerrymandering.

The idea is simple, if ridiculous.   The plaintiffs propose judging ger­ry­man­der­ing via a concept called the “ef­fi­ciency gap,” based on an aca­dem­ic pa­per writ­ten in 2014 by polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists Nich­olas Stephan­o­poulos and Eric McGhee.

The proposal is fairly simple to understand.  Start by adding each party’s “wasted votes” that did not help them win a district.  For example, if Party A wins a district with 90 out of a 100 votes than 39 of its votes were wasted as only 51 were needed to win.  All 10 of the Party B’s votes were also wasted.  Taken together you subtract the number of wasted votes by party and divide them by the number of total votes cast, and viola, you have the “efficiency gap.”

Stephan­o­poulos and Eric McGhee’ survey focused primarily on Wisconsin and found double digit efficiency gaps in the legislature in 2012 and 2014 benefiting Republicans. So, if the formula was used to equal party representation, Republicans did 10 percent better and 13 percent better in 2014 than they should have.

Except this measure is absolutely ridiculous on its face.  If the measure in its most equal form became a rule (whether by law or judicial ruling) it would mean a district where the vote is 51-49 would be unequal.  Admittedly, such a ruling in this scenario is unlikely but the possibility exists.

The dream scenario for the plaintiffs would be to see the case move all the way up to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court has hinted in the past  that some gerrymandering does go to far. The prob­lem, the Court wrote in its 2006 League of United Lat­in Amer­ic­an Cit­izens v. Perry de­cision, is that it can’t strike down ger­ry­mandered maps without some sort of tool to determine ex­actly when dis­trict boundaries are skewed so drastic­ally that they dis­crim­in­ate based on voters’ party af­fil­i­ations.  It is fairly obvious when a district is gerrymandering racially (see Florida, Virginia, North Carolina) but less so when those districts are that way to comply with federal Voting Rights laws and partisan affiliation.

The Wisconsin lawsuit aims to give courts a tool to do so.  Except that such a precedent would be brand spanking new.  For decades gerrymandering has been the norm and nobody batted an eyelash.  It is only now, when Congress is polarized, that such a panacea is brought to court.

While noble the idea has demonstrable flaws.  First-off, what constitutes to much of an efficiency gap is not being proposed by the plaintiffs.  In essence, the plaintiffs are daring the court to accept McGhee’s and Stephan­o­poulos’s recommendation of 8 percent.

This measure would invalidate Flor­ida’s, Ohio’s, Pennsylvani’sa, and Vir­gin­ia’s Congressional maps that violate voters’ constitutional rights. At the state level, this measure would invalidate political boundaries in Idaho, In­di­ana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Notice anything interesting about the state legislatures however.  Only four of states are marginally competitive for one party at the federal level.  That means that through the natural ebb and flow of politics these states are one-sided.  Mandating that districts be more competitive won’t change this.  Rather, all it would do is give Republicans more seats in the legislature in Massachusetts and Democrats more in Idaho and Wyoming.

Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General  Bri­an Keen­an, who is defending his state’s map, sees many of the “efficiency gaps” in legislative districts as the product of having a district based system.  Through no political interference, Democratic voters have moved to urban, governmentcentric suburbs and cities while Republicans have largely remained in the suburbs and rural areas of states.

“Dis­trict­ing itself isn’t un­con­sti­tu­tion­al,” Keen­an said. “By dis­trict­ing, you just group people, and what you’re supposed to do is look at communities of interest and grouping like people together. And if you do that properly and it ends up with certain groups not being able to convert seats as well, that’s just kind of the breaks, it seems like. It’s not a constitutional problem.”

Keenan is of course right.  Trying to make a seat where a majority of Republicans live meet some sort of competitive standard (not just population or shape) is foolish.  It punishes these voters for living together and in many scenarios would likely just create new schisms in politics.

Imagine the divide in legislative districts stretching from Milwaukee to the extremely conservative suburbs.  You would basically encapsulate two ideologies in a single district.  And while it might lead to a competitive district it would not change the highly polarized nature of the electorate nor would it lead to more moderate policies.  At some point these legislators would be forced between which voters to appeal to and base their votes on that appeal in an effort to get votes.

The plaintiffs are not the only ones offering ideas on how to limit gerrymandering.  Common Cause, a nonprofit group trying to limit polarization launched a competition on ideas to limit gerrymandering.  SUNY Binghamton professor Michael D. McDonald along with Assistant Professor Robin Best presented the winning proposal.  Mc­Don­ald and Best proposed comparing a party’s statewide vote with its percentage in the median district. Illegal gerrymandering will have occurred, by their standard, when a party consistently wins a majority of the statewide vote but loses the median district.

There are flaws with this idea as well.  If turnout varies significantly by district that could impact results (and that has nothing to do with gerrymandering).  Secondly, it discounts the roles candidates play in elections.  For example, using a statewide race to compare to the median vote in a legislative district discounts the quality of the candidate and the connections a challenger or incumbent has built in that district.  The legislative results last week in Virginia’s senate elections where every Republican occupying an Obama district exemplifies such a trend (polarization still does not always overcome candidate qualities).

Still, if any of these ideas gain steam, or heaven forbid the Supreme Court dictate it must be done, every state would have to comply.  However, with four justices finding Arizona’s Redistricting Commission unconstitutional that is unlikely to come to pass.

Rather, the results of the Wisconsin lawsuit and work of many professors and analysts across the country will be utilized individually by various states.  But even so, that will not change the polarizing nature of electoral system (district and geographically based electoral systems are designed to pit groups together in a healthy give and take) which is probably where the real issue lies.




Kentucky Governor’s Race Coming Down to the Wire

isWhile much attention has focused on how much polling has shown Louisiana Senator David Vitter losing his bid for Governor less attention has been focused on the only truly competitive Governor’s race up for grabs on Tuesday, Kentucky.

The Kentucky Governor’s race can aptly be described as the lesser of two evils.  Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democrat in the race, has worked hard to distance himself from the national party.  He would be a shoe-in to lose except he is facing an equally flawed opponent in Republican Matt Bevin.

In case you have forgotten, Bevin made waves when he challenged Mitch McConnell in a primary last year.  Bevin and McConnell never made up and as a result Bevin is struggling to get enough Republican voters to support his candidacy to win.

Polling has been pretty consistent in the race.  Conway has held a narrow lead between 2 and 5 percent in recent polling.  A Vox Populi (R) poll found the race tied but their sample was much different from prior polls.

The wildcard in the race (okay, the candidate wildcard) is Independent Drew Curtis.  Curtis is admittedly the most liberal candidate in the race and even the polls showing Conway leading indicate Curtis is drawing more support from Conway than Bevin.

Conway is drawing about 20 percent of the Republican vote on average while Bevin is only getting about 15 percent of Democrats.  Self-identifying Democrats still outnumber Republicans so it is crucial that Bevin unifies his party and steals some conservative Democrats from Conway.

Many analysts have the race picked as leaning towards Conway.  I would tend to agree except that surveys show Conway getting about 15 percent of “strong Republicans.”  I might be inclined to say these voters stay home due to their dislike of Bevin but going out and voting for Conway, I just don’t see it.

Geographically, the only swing regions of the state is Eastern Kentucky.  Historically Democratic at both the state and federal level the region has moved rightward at the federal level.  The Obama administration’s War on Coal has probably facilitated the shift.  If Bevin can eat into Conway’s margins in the region it would leave Conway with only urban Kentucky to build a winning margin on.

Bevin should dominate Western Kentucky and Southern Kentucky.  These counties are far more similar in culture and demographics to heavily Republican Tennessee than Kentucky.  Their vote will not come close to outweighing urban Jefferson County though.

Bevin’s key to victory lies in running up margins in Western and Southern Kentucky but also strongly Republican Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties in the Northern tip of the state.  Outgoing Democrat Steve Beshear won a majority of these three counties voters in 2007 and 2011.  Perhaps forecasting what Bevin needs to do, the lone GOP Governor for the state in the last 40 years, Ernie Fletcher, won all three counties by over 60 percent in 2003.

Conway certainly does appear to be in the driver’s seat.  Polling has shown him consistently ahead and he has higher favorable ratings than Bevin.  But Governor’s races are not popularity contests and it has become harder for state candidates to outrun political polarization.

His saving grace may be that he has portrayed himself as a conservative Democrat and is closer to the average voter on Medicaid and Medicare than Bevin.

Bevin’s chore is to unite his party and hope Curtis voters do not return to Conway.  If they do, it should show in early returns and indicate a long night for the businessman.

Addendum: Also at stake are a number of high-profile constitutional offices including Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Agricultural Commissioner and State Auditor.  The Lt. Governor position will probably go the route of the Governor’s race, Allison Grimes has locked up a second term as SofS, and the GOP has a lock on the Agricultural Commissioner position.  The State Auditor position is neck and neck and probably will go the route of other higher profile constitutional office races.