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A federal court has ruled that boundaries drawn by Wisconsin Republicans in 2011 for state legislative districts were so excessively partisan as to be unconstitutional.
Two months later, in January 2017, the three-judge panel ordered Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature to redraw the districts (the state is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court).
"We are the most -- if not Number 1, Number 2 -- gerrymandered state in the country."
Is he right?
The court case
Boundaries for the state Assembly and state Senate (as well as for Wisconsin’s congressional districts) are redrawn every 10 years -- by the state Legislature itself, which can lead to problems.
As the Harvard Political Review has observed generally about redistricting, which is done by the legislature in most states: "Allowing partisan legislators to redraw their own districts creates a clear conflict of interest, and historically the temptation to game the system has proven too great to resist for the majority party."
The federal court said the Wisconsin state legislative maps drawn in 2011 by Republicans were among the most heavily skewed to one party of any plan in the country going back more than 40 years. One of the goals, the court concluded, "was to secure Republican control of the Assembly under any likely future electoral scenario for the remainder of the decade, in other words to entrench the Republican Party in power."
The Washington Post’s "The Fix" blog called Wisconsin one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, noting that in 2012, Democratic candidates for the state Assembly received more votes than Republicans, but won just 39 of 99 districts. The blog said the court’s ruling was the first time in a decade that a court has thrown out legislative maps because they favored voters of one party over another.
The new boundaries have been reflected in election results. As Craig Gilbert, author of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Wisconsin Voter blog, has reported:
2012: Republicans got only 46 percent of the presidential vote in Wisconsin, but won 60 percent of the seats in the state Assembly.
2014: Republicans got just over 52 percent of the vote for governor, but captured 63 percent of the Assembly seats.
2016: Donald Trump won 50.4 percent of the vote for president, but won 64 percent of the Assembly seats.
Viewed another way, according to political scientists at Binghamton University: Wisconsin Democrats probably have to win about 55 to 56 percent of the statewide vote to win control of the state Assembly, while Republicans need only win 44 to 45 percent.
And Theodore Arrington, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, agreed that depending on how gerrymandering is measured, Wisconsin is among the worst states.
So, the Wisconsin state legislative maps stand as an outlier.
How Wisconsin compares to others isn’t a precise calculation, but it stands out in that way, too.
To back Hansen’s claim, his office pointed us to a column that reported on a 2015 study by Simon Jackman, who at the time was a political science professor at Stanford University. (He is now CEO of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.) Jackman was hired by the plaintiffs in the federal court case. He studied 41 states, not all 50, and ranked Wisconsin’s map as the fifth-worst:
Both studies used a measure called the "efficiency gap," a number that is arrived at through an equation. That is, the difference between each party's "wasted" votes in an election -- where votes are wasted if they are cast for a losing candidate, or for a winning candidate but in excess of what the candidate needed to win -- divided by the total number of votes cast.
Stephanopoulos told us Wisconsin’s ranking differs in the two studies because the studies treated uncontested races differently. But whether Wisconsin ranks fifth or second "is just a matter of a percentage point or two, and is substantively irrelevant," he said.
There are some caveats, though, as other redistricting experts noted.
Charles Hampton, an emeritus professor of mathematical sciences at Wooster College in Ohio, said he thought the second study was too dependent on vote totals in its analysis and not on the redistricting plan itself.
Michael Li, who is senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice Democracy Program at New York University School of Law, told us the "partisan biases" found in the studies can be largely but not completely explained by gerrymandering. But he said political geography -- for example, Democrats tending to live in big cities -- also explains some of the disparity in Wisconsin.
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who maintains a website on redistricting, cautioned that "there are no universally agreed-upon rankings, in part because gerrymandering usually describes an unfair drawing of the lines, and there's no universally agreed-upon sense of what's fair, or what's fair for what purposes."
Hansen says Wisconsin is "the most -- if not Number 1, Number 2 -- gerrymandered state in the country" for state legislative boundaries.
A federal court has said maps drawn in 2011 by Wisconsin Republicans were among the most heavily skewed to one party of any plan in the country going back more than 40 years. And, with the caveat that there isn’t a universally accepted definition of gerrymander, two studies put Wisconsin at or near the top.
We rate the statement Mostly True.
WFRV-TV, "Newsmaker Sunday" interview (4:20) of Dave Hansen, March 6, 2017
Email, Dave Hansen staff member Jay Wadd, March 8, 2017
Urban Milwaukee, "The Most Gerrymandered State in America," Aug. 6, 2015
Simon Jackman, "Assessing the Current Wisconsin State Legislative Districting Plan," July 7, 2015
Washington Post The Fix blog, "Republican redistricting is taking a beating in the courts, right now," Jan. 28, 2017
Interview, Michael Li, senior counsel and redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice Democracy Program at New York University School of Law, March 10, 2017
Email, Wooster College emeritus professor of mathematical sciences Charles Hampton, March 12, 2017
Email, Campaign Legal Center lawyer and deputy director of redistricting Ruth Greenwood, March 8, 2017
Email, Common Cause national redistricting manager Dan Vicuna, March 8, 2017
Email, Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt, March 12, 2017
Binghamton University political scientists, "Can Gerrymanders Be Measured? An Examination of Wisconsin's State Assembly," May 28, 2016
Interview, Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, March 10, 2017
Washington Post Monkey Cage blog by Binghamton University political scientists, "Wisconsin’s state legislative districts are a big Republican gerrymander," May 24, 2016
Harvard Political Review, "Redrawing America: Why Gerrymandering Matters," May 24, 2016
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Wisconsin Voter blog, "More evidence of a skewed GOP map in Wisconsin," Jan. 28, 2017
University of Chicago Law Review, "Partisan Gerrymandering and the Efficiency Gap (page 882)," Oct. 1, 2014
Email, University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor emeritus of political science and redistricting expert Theodore Arrington, March 8, 2017
Email, University of Chicago law professor and redistricting expert Nicholas Stephanopoulos, March 8, 2017
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