–submitted by Kevin Hoffman; photo by Mike Engelberger
UW Professor David Canon presented a historical context and current review of Gill v. Whitford, the Wisconsin case before the US Supreme Court that challenges the most recent redistricting completed in 2011. The issue is whether the plan used excessive partisan gerrymandering to create an unconstitutional redistricting that discriminated in favor of one political party over another. Oral arguments are scheduled this Tuesday, October 3.
Professor Canon explained that redistricting happens every ten years following the census to adjust districts for changes in population. Generally, districts must be of equal population, must conform to voting rights acts (cannot violate racial or ethnic considerations), be compact and contiguous, and respect traditional and natural boundaries. However, the practice of achieving partisan districts, called gerrymandering (drawing boundaries to enhance political advantage), has been part of our nation’s history for over 200 years. The party in power wants to maintain an advantage whether it is Democrat or Republican.
Methods used to do this are called “cracking” and “packing”. Cracking is the practice of drawing the district boundaries to reduce a given party’s voters so that they are too small to have an impact on the election outcome. The sweet spot for cracking is to obtain a 55-60% election advantage. Higher than that becomes overkill. Packing is the practice of drawing the boundaries so that a given party’s voters are concentrated into a few districts. The objective of these methods is to maximize the number of legislative seats for a given party.
The issue of partisan gerrymandering has come before the US Supreme Court in prior cases but the court has been reluctant to rule it unconstitutional since an objective and neutral measure of partisan balance has not been available. Gill v Whitford uses an Efficiency Gap calculation to attempt to quantify the competitiveness of a given district. The gap is the difference in the two party’s losing votes divided by the total votes. Gaps closest to zero indicate a competitive district. Anything over 7% is considered uncompetitive. Wisconsin’s was in the 10-13% range.
The Federal District court has ruled the Wisconsin redistricting unconstitutional but did not force redistricting pending review by the Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court is expected to come down along ideological lines with Justice Kennedy the swing vote.
If you missed our meeting this week, you can watch the video here.