Partisan Gerrymandering and the Constitution III

This is the third and final in a series of posts on the issue of political gerrymandering as raised in Gill v. Whitford, the Wisconsin case recently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case the Republican majority of the legislature intentionally redrew state district boundaries to ensure that in the future Republicans won a majority of seats even when Democrats prevailed in the state-wide popular vote. The Democrat challengers in court claimed that their rights to free association and speech under the First Amendment and their right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment were violated by this. How the Supreme Court resolves this case will determine how well our democracy works for decades.

Recall that a test has never been found that reliably distinguishes the acceptable application of political power in drawing district boundaries from unconstitutional vote dilution. For that reason, courts have repeatedly expressed skepticism about whether political gerrymandering cases are justiciable – capable of being decided consistently and fairly.

This shouldn’t be a Republican versus Democrat issue in the traditional sense because either party can be disadvantaged by political gerrymandering. But it is an issue that divides conservative jurists from more liberal ones. During the argument of Gill before the Supreme Court, the four conservative Justices emphasized lack of justiciability and staked their position that gerrymandering is a political issue that has no judicial solution. Chief Justice Roberts was concerned that invalidating the gerrymandering in Wisconsin would lead to a wave of these cases reaching the Supreme Court since, unlike most cases, the Court is required to hear redistricting cases. This, argued Roberts, would draw the Court too much into the political realm reserved for the legislative branch.

On the other hand, the four liberal Justices emphasized the damage to individual rights created by gerrymandering and seemed more open to judicial intervention. Justice Ginsburg told the lawyer from Wisconsin that the case involved “the precious right to vote” and speculated that if the result of an election were preordained because of gerrymandering the people would lose their incentive to go to the polls.

Justice Anthony Kennedy occupied the middle ground, as he does on so many issues, and seemed supportive of the challengers’ social science approach as perhaps finally providing a satisfactory tool for judging these cases.

The challengers proposed two major methods by which to test partisan gerrymandering. These would work in tandem. The first is called “partisan symmetry.” It is based on the idea that the electoral system should treat similarly-situated parties equally so that they are able to translate their popular support into legislative representation with approximately equal ease. Asymmetry is found where there is a marked difference between the number of seats each party would win in the hypothetical election where the popular vote is split equally.

The challengers showed at trial that over the three elections in Wisconsin after redistricting, Republicans would have won between 61.6% and 62.7% of the seats if the state-wide popular vote had been perfectly tied.

The second test proposed by the challengers is what they called “the efficiency test,” a mixture of political science and statistics. This test analyzes actual elections. Gerrymandering works either to “pack” or “crack” districts of the victimized party. Packing is to transfer to a district already partial to one party voters from that same party. The transferred voters no longer pose a threat to the other party in the district from which they came and are unnecessary to elect their party’s candidate in their new home district. Cracking is to split a district heavy with voters of one party and transfer them to districts where they will be in the minority and can no longer elect their candidate of choice. The efficiency test treats votes as “wasted” in a district if they are more than required to elect a favored candidate (packing) or if they are cast for a losing candidate (cracking).

The challengers showed at trial that votes for Democratic candidates were wasted at a rate of from 9.6 to 13.3 percentage points higher than the rate at which Republican votes were wasted.

Both these tests start from the proposition that registered Democrats will vote for Democrat candidates and registered Republicans will vote for candidates from their party. Skeptics argue that this makes the tests proposed by the challengers nothing more than disguised tests of proportionality – assuming that results are constitutional only when they reflect the size of the voter group under consideration. That would ignore what legitimately occurs when a charismatic candidate from one party draws votes from registered voters of the other party. The challengers answer this criticism by pointing out that their statistical arguments are based on many races in many districts over many election cycles, which evens out the anomalies.

In the long run, this case may be decided on a more straightforward issue that does not get into the weeds of political science and legal tests. Justice Sotomayor asked the lawyer for Wisconsin “Could you tell me what the value is to democracy from political gerrymandering? How does that help our system of government?” The lawyer had no satisfactory answer.

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