When Salamanders Rule, Voters Lose

Crossword fans know that a newt is a variety of salamander and political junkies know that neither the thrice-married Newt Gingrich nor an electoral district shaped like a newt bodes well for the health of our body politic. Nevertheless the state of Wisconsin has a large number of oddly newt-like electoral areas, more familiarly known as gerrymandered districts. How did we come to call them that?

In the 1812, Elbridge Gerry, then the governor of Massachusetts, wanted to benefit his own political party. So he decided to redistrict the Boston area.  On the map, the new district he drew looked like a salamander.  With tongue-in-cheek, the Boston Gazette combined the governor’s name with part of the word salamander and coined the term gerrymander to describe his actions. We’ve used the term ever since to describe the process of “manipulate[ing] the boundaries of an election or constituency so as to favor one party or class.’

A Washington Post  graphic beautifully shows how gerrymandering works.


Across the country, a number of legal actions in recent years have targeted what are seen as inappropriate, even unconstitutional, reapportionment.  (For a more detailed history of the prior attempt to overturn the clearly partisan WI 2011 redistricting see Blue Cheddar, July 9, 2015.) Lately there has been growing interest in challenging gerrymandering. An Arizona case just decided by the US Supreme Court in June 2015 ruled that "the people of Arizona were on firm legal ground when they took redistricting out of the hands of the legislature in 2000 and placed it in the hands of an independent district." The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign calls the decision "a tremendous victory for democracy. This gerrymandering that is done every ten years makes a joke of representative government and effectively muffles the voices of millions of voters."

A New Federal Court Challenge

In Wisconsin, a new legal effort has begun in hopes of overturning our current electoral map before the 2016 elections. Filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin on July 8, 2015, the suit argues that "the Current Plan is, by any measure, one of the worst partisan gerrymanders in modern American history" and that "because severe gerrymanders are likely to be extremely durable..., it is unlikely that the disadvantaged party’s adherents will be able to protect themselves through the political process“ (Brief filed July 8, 2015).

Most previous cases challenging gerrymanders have been based on the qualitative, anecdotal argument that "this is a bad thing." Although the US Supreme Court has recognized that egregiously drawn boundaries might be unconstitutional, no constitutional challenge has yet to succeed on that ground "because plaintiffs have been unable to offer a workable standard to distinguish between permissible political line-drawing and unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering" (Brief filed July 8, 2015).

The current suit from Wisconsin does offer an objective standard for evaluating the difference between appropriate and unconstitutional gerrymandering, what the plaintiffs call the "efficiency gap." According to the brief, the Current Plan “violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution” and plaintiffs seek “an order permanently enjoining the implementation of the Current Plan in the 2016 election." To avoid the appearance of a partisan decision, the suit requests a three judge panel.

The Legal Complaint goes on to say that

one way to measure a district plan’s performance in terms of partisan symmetry is to determine whether there is an "efficiency gap" between the performances of the two major parties and, if so, to compare the magnitude of that gap to comparable district plans in the modern era nationwide. The efficiency gap captures in a single number all of a district plan’s cracking and packing, the two fundamental ways in which partisan gerrymanders are constructed. Cracking means dividing a party’s supporters among multiple districts so that they fall short of a majority in each one. Packing means concentrating one party’s backers in a few districts that they win by overwhelming margins. Both cracking and packing result in "wasted" votes: votes cast either for a losing candidate (in the case of cracking) or for a winning candidate but in excess of what he or she needed to prevail (in the case of packing). The efficiency gap is the difference between the parties’ respective wasted votes in an election, divided by the total number of votes cast. But where the efficiency gap is large and much greater than the historical norm, there should be a presumption of unconstitutionality. In such a case, intent to systematically disadvantage voters based on their political beliefs can be inferred from the severity of the gerrymander alone.

You can find entire Legal Complaint online

According to a study by Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos & Eric M. McGhee (Partisan Gerrymandering and the Efficiency Gap, 82 U. Chi. L. Rev. 101, 2015), "stayed roughly constant from 1972 to 2010. But in the current cycle, fueled by rising partisanship and greater technological sophistication, it spiked to the highest level recorded in the modern era: over 6% for state house plans"b(Case Brief filed July 8, 2015). In the 2012 elections, when the most recent redistricting plan went into effect, the pro-Republican efficiency gap was 13%.  Although "more Democrats than Republicans voted – 1.4 million versus 1.2 million [in the 2012 election],... Republicans overwhelmingly captured the Assembly 60 seats to 39" (Marge Pitrof, "Wisconsin Residents Sue State, Claim Legislative Districts are Unconstitutional", WUWM.com, July 9, 2015).

Legislative Action

The following Democratic senators have co-sponsored SB 58, a bill which would direct the non-partisan Legislative Reference Bureau to draw the redistricting map based upon certain objective criteria: Dave Hansen (District 30), Tim Carpenter (District 3), Janis Ringhand (District 15), Kathleen Vinehout (District 31), Chris Larson (District 7), Fred Risser (District 26), Robert Wirch (District 22), Janet Bewley (District 25), Mark Miller (District 16), and Lena Taylor (District 4). 

  • Call and write these Senators and call and write your own representatives in both the Assembly and the Senate to let them know you support this measure: to find contact information visit https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2015/legislators.
  • Post the article on our Grassroots North Shore site to your own Facebook page and tweet about it on your Twitter account.
  • Write letters to the editors of various media outlets around the state; Grassroots Citizens of Wisconsin offers advice and links to help you.

So much effort is currently being spent to resolve the myriad of issues that now plague us.  While those efforts are both laudable and effective, none of them target the root cause:  the current extreme Wisconsin administration.  If that group were not in power, many of these problems could probably be eliminated at one fell swoop.  And until the ultra-partisan apportionment of electoral power passed in 2011 is reversed, the hope of removing them from power may be nothing more than a fantasy.

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