New York Times
By ADAM LIPTAK MAY 15, 2017
The Supreme Court building in Washington, seen from the Senate. Congress requires the Supreme Court to hear appeals in some areas of election law, and Wisconsin officials have filed such an appeal. Credit:Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
The Supreme Court has never struck down an election map on the ground that it was drawn to make sure one political party would win an outsize number of seats. But it has left open the possibility that some kinds of political gamesmanship in redistricting may be too extreme.
The problem, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a 2004 concurrence, is that no one has come up with “a workable standard” to decide when the political gerrymandering has crossed a constitutional line.
Finding such a standard has long been, as one judge put it, “the holy grail of election law jurisprudence.”
In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will consider an appeal from a decision in Wisconsin that may have found that holy grail. The case, Gill v. Whitford, No. 16-1161, arrives at the court in the wake of a wave of Republican victories in state legislatures that allowed lawmakers to draw election maps favoring their party.
The case started when Republicans gained complete control of Wisconsin’s government in 2010 for the first time in more than 40 years. It was a redistricting year, and lawmakers promptly drew a map for the State Assembly that helped Republicans convert very close statewide vote totals into lopsided legislative majorities.
In 2012, Republicans won 48.6 percent of the statewide vote for Assembly candidates but captured 60 of the Assembly’s 99 seats. In 2014, 52 percent of the vote yielded 63 seats.
Last year, a divided three-judge Federal District Court panel ruled that Republicans had gone too far. The map, Judge Kenneth F. Ripple wrote for the majority, “was designed to make it more difficult for Democrats, compared to Republicans, to translate their votes into seats.”
The decision was the first from a federal court in more than 30 years to reject a voting map as partisan gerrymandering.
Most cases reach the Supreme Court by way of petitions seeking review, which the justices are free to deny. The Wisconsin case is different. Congress requires the Supreme Court to hear appeals in some areas of election law, and Wisconsin officials have filed such an appeal.
That means the Supreme Court is very likely to weigh in on the fate of political gerrymandering, probably during the court’s next term, which starts in October.
There are two basic ways to inject partisan politics into drawing legislative maps: packing and cracking. Both result in what Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos, a law professor at the University of Chicago and a lawyer for the plaintiffs, calls “wasted votes.”
Packing a lot of Democrats into a single district, for instance, wastes every Democratic vote beyond the bare majority needed to elect a Democratic candidate. Cracking Democratic voters across districts in which Republicans have small majorities wastes all of the Democratic votes when the Republican candidate wins.
In an influential article, Professor Stephanopoulos and his colleague Eric McGhee applied a little math to this observation. The difference between the two parties’ wasted votes, divided by the total number of votes cast, yields an efficiency gap, they wrote. In a world of perfect nonpartisanship, there would be no gap.
The gap in Wisconsin was 13.3 percent in 2012 and 9.6 percent in 2014.
The Wisconsin voters who sued to challenge the Assembly map argued that gaps over 7 percent violate the Constitution. That number was meant to capture the likelihood that the gap would endure over a 10-year election cycle, but critics say it is arbitrary.
Adopting it, they say, would transform American elections. A 2015 report from Simon Jackman, then a political scientist at Stanford and an expert witness for the plaintiffs, found that a third of all redistricting plans in 41 states over a 43-year period failed the 7 percent standard. Elections in 2012 and 2014 in Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming featured efficiency gaps of more than 10 percent, Professor Jackman found.
Judge Ripple did not ground his opinion on the efficiency gap, relying instead on a more conventional legal test that considered discriminatory intent, the map’s partisan effects and whether they were justified by other reasons. But Judge Ripple did say that the efficiency gap corroborated the majority’s conclusions.
The case seems to be making Republicans nervous.
In a supporting brief, the Republican National Committee urged the Supreme Court to reverse the ruling. The efficiency gap, the brief said, “is a tool that advances the partisan interests of the Democratic Party.”
The gap, the brief said, is a product of geography rather than gerrymandering. Democrats have packed themselves into cities, effectively diluting their voting power, while Republicans are more evenly distributed across most states, the brief said.
Most people acknowledge that the distribution of the population explains at least some part of the gap. “Wisconsin’s political geography, particularly the high concentration of Democratic voters in urban centers like Milwaukee and Madison, affords the Republican Party a natural, but modest, advantage in the districting process,” Judge Ripple wrote, for instance.
Partisan gerrymandering, he wrote, amplified that advantage.
Using computer simulations, Jowei Chen, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, has tried to disentangle any natural advantages enjoyed by Wisconsin Republicans from those created by gerrymandering. He found that it was not hard to draw maps favoring neither party.
Justice Kennedy may have been looking for a “workable standard” even simpler and cleaner than one that must take account of natural advantages. But if there is a holy grail in this area, the test identified in the Wisconsin case is almost certainly it.
Follow Adam Liptak on Twitter @adamliptak.
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