How to Fix Gerrymandering – Slate Magazine

 In U.S.
Gigantic Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison Wisconsin.
If the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison expanded to fit more members …

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock, Richard Hurd/Flickr CC.

This week, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case of Gill v. Whitford, whose plaintiffs claim the electoral boundaries drawn up by the GOP-controlled Wisconsin legislature constitute a gerrymander so extreme as to deny them their full ability to vote. The maps in my home state were engineered with merciless precision to ensure a lasting Republican majority in a place whose recent voting practices have oscillated within a narrow purple band. This is surely unfair; the courts will decide whether it’s unconstitutional as well.

It won’t be easy. Redistricting is an unholy snarl of law, politics, and math, and there’s probably no single person who understands it from top to bottom. (But some of us are trying: A group of researchers at Tufts University is organizing a series of conferences in which citizens and scientists are hashing some of these issues out; I’m hosting one in Madison, Wisconsin, in October.)

Here’s one reason redistricting is such a difficult problem. In Wisconsin, two of the major population centers, Madison and Milwaukee, are dominated by Democrats, while only one (centered on, yes, crucial Waukesha County) is similarly Republican-heavy. The rest of the state is more moderate but leans mildly Republican overall. It’s not totally crazy, then, for a legislative map to consist of a few heavily Democratic districts in the big cities and many slightly Republican ones elsewhere. Such a map wouldn’t necessarily be evidence of biased, partisan gerrymandering—in some measure, it’s just a consequence of the state’s geography.

Wisconsin claims its map is just such an organic, free-range gerrymander. University of Michigan political scientist Jowei Chen sees it differently. Chen generated 200 random maps algorithmically, using party-neutral methods. Not one of them was as GOP-friendly as the one Wisconsin is using—not even close.

In the computer-generated maps, the number of districts that supported Romney over Obama in 2012 ranged from 38 to 47 out of 99. (Obama got 52.8 percent of the vote statewide, while his Republican challenger got 45.9 percent.) In the actual Wisconsin map, however, 56 of the 99 districts contain a Romney-backing majority. The GOP-drawn map also scores badly on traditional measures of quality. Every computer-generated map kept at least 18 counties entirely within a single district, and some preserved as many as 24. Wisconsin’s map leaves only 14 counties intact.

While we’re not about to give over our districting process to Professor Chen’s laptop, the auto-generated maps serve as a useful benchmark for human-made districts. This figure from Chen’s paper shows just how much of an outlier Wisconsin’s current map really is.


Jowei Chen

Is there a way to solve the problem of gerrymandering without getting the courts involved? I think there is, and it’s pretty simple: We ought to have a lot more state legislators.

State legislatures are like the restaurant dinner in the old joke—awful, and the portions are much too small. The Wisconsin Assembly has 99 members, each representing around 60,000 people. That’s just two more legislators than we had in 1860, when the state’s population was about an eighth as large. While most states have big districts like Wisconsin’s, there are exceptions. West Virginia, a third of Wisconsin’s size, has 100 members in its lower house. North Dakota has 94 representatives for a population a little bigger than Milwaukee’s. And New Hampshire, the champ of them all, has a House of Representatives with 400 members, each one representing just more than 3,000 people.

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