7.6.18

EXPLOITING POLARIZATION?

Those vote-outcome maps, in which (usually blue, does anybody else want the networks to go back to swapping the colors every few years?) Democrats win a few thickly settled areas while most of the country appears to be under Republican control might be evidence of irreconcilable political differences, or electoral agglomeration economies, or, perhaps, in the most recent presidential cycle, a rebuke of President Obama's hectoring ways.  "American voters like a check and balance, says state legislative handicapper Louis Jacobson, so it's not unusual to see the party locked out of the White House pick up seats in Congress and state government. This was particularly pronounced during the Obama years -- more than 900 Democratic state legislators were defeated."

Because elected representatives have the responsibility of drawing up the districts from which they will be elected, there is ample opportunity for the insiders to rig the game so as to create a lot of safe districts.  An absence of contested districts, however, has motivated analysts, in the academy and among the governing class, to discover something called voting inefficiency.
Democrats contend they have found a way to measure unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders designed to give a "large and durable" advantage in elections to one party — a measure the U.S. Supreme Court said was lacking in previous redistricting cases. The measure, called the efficiency gap, shows how cracking (breaking up blocs of Democratic voters) and packing (concentrating Democrats within certain districts) results in wasted votes — excess votes for the winners in safe districts and perpetually inadequate votes for the losers.
Thus, in Wisconsin, where the lawsuit took place, and possibly in other states, a plurality of the votes cast in legislative or House elections might go to Democrats, but the majority of the seats in the legislature, as contested in the case, or in the state's Congressional delegation, are Republicans.
The 2012 and 2014 elections showed that the maps for the Wisconsin Assembly are some of the most heavily skewed maps in the country going back more than 40 years.

The judges noted in Monday's ruling that Democrats got more votes than Republicans in Assembly races in 2012, but Republicans were able to claim 60 of the 99 seats.

That happened because blocs of Democratic voters had been packed into districts instead of scattered into competitive districts. That resulted in Democrats casting a large number of "wasted votes" — that is, votes that are not needed to elect a candidate.

The judges found Republicans had gone overboard in taking partisanship into account in drawing the maps, thus violating the free association rights and the guarantee of equal protection under the law. The judges noted Republicans created a special measure to calculate the likelihood they would win particular districts and labeled maps they drew that benefited Republicans as "assertive" and "aggressive."

"When the state places an artificial burden on the ability of voters of a certain political persuasion to form a legislative majority, it necessarily diminishes the weight of the vote of each of those voters when compared to the votes of individuals favoring another view," they wrote. "The burdened voter simply has a diminished or even no opportunity to effect a legislative majority. That voter is, in essence, an unequal participant in the decisions of the body politic."
One of the participants in the lawsuit noted that it's probably the manipulation of districts by insiders, moreso than the relative inefficiency of Democratic votes in Wisconsin, that's most important.
Katherine Gehl said she helped fund the lawsuit because it could transform the way states draw political maps — not because it helped Democrats.

"Historically, Democrats and Republicans have engaged in this process relatively equally," Gehl said of lawmakers drawing political lines to maximize their advantage. "It is bad for everyone when politicians choose their voters instead of voters their politicians."

Every 10 years, states must redraw their congressional and legislative boundaries to account for changes in population. Republicans won control of all of Wisconsin's government in 2010 and were able to use their majorities to draw lines that greatly benefited them.
South of the Cheddar Curtain, it doesn't matter how many or how crude the names opposition -- not necessarily Republican -- candidates call assembly speaker Mike Madigan: he and his Combine cronies have the votes.

In principle, obtaining roughly equal voter efficiencies might be as straightforward as using algorithms that create the simplest closed polygons enclosing otherwise equal populations.

The Wisconsin case is before the Supreme Court, and life isn't necessarily that straightforward.
If one party’s voters are concentrated in a few areas — as Democrats are often concentrated in metropolitan areas — then their votes may be “wasted” naturally, even without a purposeful gerrymander. At the federal district trial, Sean Trende argued that the efficiency gap cannot distinguish intentional bias from geographic clustering.

On the other hand, the political scientist Kenneth Mayer argued that it was possible to draw a map that satisfied other criteria for redistricting and still had a less extreme efficiency gap — suggesting that the partisan bias in the assembly map was not simply due to geography.
There's an additional constraint, in the form of the Voting Rights Act, which prompts National Review's Jonathan Tobin to fret, "Blame liberal judges who mandated majority-minority districts."
If Democrats are winning a few districts by landslides while losing others by narrow margins, that creates a large number of “wasted votes” and, at least in their view, undermines democracy. Wisconsin Republicans, whose redistricting plan is the focus of one case, parlayed 48.5 percent of the vote into almost 60 out of 99 seats in 2012 and then 52 percent into 63 seats in 2014. Democrats think this should be illegal even if it is the sort of trick that both Republicans and Democrats have been pulling on each other every chance they’ve gotten for more than 200 years.

But while the math would indicate that the votes of Democrats are not having as much of an impact as they’d like, in many of the states that would be affected by a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, the main reason for “wasted votes” has less to do with GOP cleverness than it does with a practice that satisfies one particular group of Democratic politicians.

By the time of the post-1990 Census round of redistricting, federal courts had moved on from efforts to ensure that minority voters weren’t being deprived of the franchise to ways of increasing their representation. The solution was court-mandated majority-minority districts that more or less guaranteed that members of groups that had faced discrimination in the past were given a leg up toward winning elections.
That might be so, and yet, I am aware of no serious effort by Republicans, or any emergent party with national aspirations, to win over some of the Democratic base from their gentry exploiters.

Furthermore, as Christopher Ingraham observes,
Packing a state's minority voters into a small number of districts has the effect of diminishing their clout everywhere else. What you get, in effect, is district-level segregation: minority districts for minority voters.

North Carolina's 12th district, the country's most gerrymandered, is a perfect example of this. The district was originally drawn by Democrats. But when the GOP redrew the state in 2010, they found it convenient to leave the 12th mostly untouched. Concentrating African American voters here gave them more leeway to finagle the surrounding districts to their liking.

These considerations of race and communities of interest are meaningful and should not be dismissed lightly. As I said above, they're driven by the highest ideals. But they turn out to be really difficult to put into practice, leaving the door open to all manner of lopsided representation.  At worst they can be twisted into tools for disenfranchisement.

Brian Olson's algorithm bypasses these issues completely in favor of straightforward geographic compactness. It would be a huge lift to actually put programmatic redistricting into practice — among other things, we'd need to retool major portions of the Voting Rights Act. But given what's at stake — the very idea of representative democracy — it's worth considering.
Perhaps we'll see the first evidence of Republican outreach toward voters they are perceived as antagonizing might be in rising Republican pluralities in finagled districts.  Promises to make for interesting research.

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