While Wisconsin waits to reargue a gerrymandering case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, the state should look to examples of better redistricting procedures, like those found in Pennsylvania, California and Iowa, a UW-Madison political science professor argued Wednesday night to an audience of roughly 75 people at the UW-Eau Claire Forum.
Barry Burden, also director of the Elections Research Center, said those three states have each come up with different solutions to the problem of gerrymandering.
Pennsylvania turned to its state courts to create districts that honor its swing state status.
California founded a citizen commission comprising equal numbers of Republican, Democratic and nonpartisan voters who work together to create maps that don’t heavily favor one party over the other. Iowa, which Burden said is the best example of a strong redistricting solution, has a state agency that looks at census data and produces districts without considering partisanship and generally tries to keep counties together.
“It’s inexpensive, it’s transparent, it’s done very quickly and there’s no reason Wisconsin can’t do it,” Burden said of Iowa’s method.
Though a few have made it to the Supreme Court, no gerrymandering cases have ever been settled by the Supreme court. One major reason, Burden argued, was that there was never a standard to measure gerrymandered districts against. Last year’s Gill v. Whitford out of Wisconsin was pushed back to the lower courts for that very reason. The case will be reargued after seeing how a similar North Carolina case is decided.
Burden said the extra time is beneficial because it gives the plaintiffs more time to collect evidence to prove gerrymandering in the state unconstitutional. On top of that, Burden said, a man named Nicholas Stephanopoulos came up with a measure called the efficiency gap that could aid the Supreme Court in determining unconstitutionality of district lines.
Wisconsin’s case is different from others. It deals with Assembly districts rather than congressional districts, and 2011 was the first time in roughly 60 years that one party was in charge of drawing the district maps.
Besides offering solutions for the state’s gerrymandering problem, Burden also made a point to dispel myths about the effects of gerrymandering.
“It’s our instinct to see the district wiggling around and assume something malicious is happening,” Burden said. “We get the sense that this is bad actors doing terrible things.”
Gerrymandering, Burden said, can indeed be done for a number of reasons including partisan bias, personal political vendettas, protection of incumbents and more. But just because districts sometimes come out looking odd and misshapen doesn’t necessarily mean they were created out of animosity.
When mapmakers create new districts, they have a list of things to consider: equal population, contiguity, minority population, communities of interest, jurisdictional boundaries, compactness and competitiveness.
“It’s a reasonable set of things to think about, but it’s impossible to do all of them simultaneously,” Burden said.
Thus, it is sometimes hard to avoid ugly-looking maps. Two principles Burden said people should keep in mind are responsiveness — whether or not the number of seats changes when the number of votes changes — and symmetry — whether or not the majority parties would be treated the same way if the roles were reversed.
Another concern Burden addressed was partisan polarization, and while he contended that gerrymandering can have some effect, “polarization is trucking along on its own just fine.”
Time is of the essence in finding a solution for gerrymandering, Burden said, as the 2020 census will demand another round of redistricting in the state. It is a process that is vital to democracy, he said.
Barb Flom, a resident of Knapp in Dunn County, came to The Forum presentation because she is a plaintiff in the Gill v. Whitford case. She was hoping to glean information about the next steps in the case and about gerrymandering in general.
“I think it’s so surprising that they can draw boundaries in the state that fail to capture the actual vote in the state,” Flon said.