June Journal Club Review: Cracking and Packing – The Evolution of Governor Gerry’s Salamander

June’s journal club was led by Kevin Lauterjung (Graduate Student in Biophysics). Journal club review was written by Grant Hisao (Postdoc in Biochemistry).

Redistricting, or the redrawing of maps for Congressional and State Legislative districts, is a process that each state undergoes every 10 years shortly after the completion of the United States census. This process is the primary responsibility of State government; the Federal government only imposes a limited number of restrictions, like having an equal population distribution among districts that do not discriminate based on race or ethnicity. With no other significant Federal restrictions, each state employs a unique method to redistricting. In many cases, states have drawn maps that favor a particular political outcome. This act is known as gerrymandering and was the topic of discussion at CaSP’s June Journal Club.

History of Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering broadly refers to the process of redistricting on specific criteria to ensure a particular political outcome. Often it is used by the political party in power to favor their party’s chances in winning majorities in legislative assemblies. Gerrymandering is problematic because it causes a number of issues including political polarization (causing government gridlock) and political entrenchment (causing a lack of accountability of elected officials).

The word “gerrymander” is an eponym and portmanteau between the name “Elbridge Gerry” and the word “salamander.” Elbridge Gerry was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was elected to the second Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, and served as the country’s fifth Vice-President (under Pres. James Madison) before dying in office. However, he is remembered most significantly for his actions as the Governor of Massachusetts.

In 1812, Governor Gerry signed into law new voting district maps that heavily favored his party, the Democratic-Republican party. The map included a number of odd shaped districts including a uniquely shaped district that resembled a salamander. Members of the Federalist party coined the term “gerrymander” to satirize this political move. Since then, gerrymandering has become prevalent political tool. Though racial gerrymandering is illegal, partisan gerrymandering is common practice.

Cracking and Packing

Gerrymandering is achieved in roughly two ways: cracking and packing. Cracking occurs when a district  that is considered a stronghold of one party is fragmented into multiple districts, allowing the area to become more competitive towards the other party. An example of this can be seen in Maryland’s 2010 redistricting, where a once reliably Republican district in Northwest Maryland was cracked into a number of different districts that favored Democrats. Packing occurs when the voters of one party are concentrated into a minimal number of districts. By concentrating voters, a particular party wins a district with a supermajority, but it cannot compete in neighboring districts which in turn gives the majority of the other districts to the opposing party. In practice, most gerrymandering utilizes both techniques to favor the party in power.

Measuring Partisan Gerrymandering

In the early US Supreme Court cases involving partisan gerrymandering (Davis v. Bandemer of 1986; Vieth v. Jubelirer of 2004), the court could not rule that any of the contested maps were unconstitutional because the court lacked a legal standard to measure misconduct caused by redistricting. Given this legal precedent, social scientists have since developed metrics to quantify partisan gerrymandering. These peer-reviewed metrics include the lopsided average test, the efficiency gap, and partisan bias.

The validity of the metrics encountered their first legal test in 2017 during the Supreme Court hearing for the case for Gill v. Whitford, involving partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin through passage of Act 43. In particular, the plaintiffs requested the courts accept the efficiency gap as a metric for measuring the effects of gerrymandering. The court, however, was not convinced, with Chief Justice Robberts going as far as calling the efficiency gap “sociological gobbledygook.” The case was remanded on the basis that the plaintiffs lacked sufficient evidence and were not able to sufficiently demonstrate how Act 43 harmed them. Proceedings have continued in lower courts and a trial was slated to begin in July.

Can we even rely on the courts?

In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Davis v. Bandemer, where Indiana Democrats argued that state legislature maps at the time violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment in the United States Constitution. Though the Court ultimately ruled that the maps were legal, the Court also ruled that partisan gerrymandering is justiciable. The question of justiciability came up once again in 2004, with the case of Vieth v. Jubelirer. In this case, Pennsylvania Democrats argued that the redistricting done after the 2000 census was an act of illegal partisan gerrymandering. During this case, conservative justices on the high court (namely Scalia) felt that partisan gerrymandering shouldn’t be justiciable because it interferes with the redistricting process, which ultimately politicizes the court. VERY RECENTLY, this thought was codified in the decision of Rucho v. Common Cause.

In 2018, a federal district court in North Carolina ruled that the state’s gerrymandered districts were unconstitutional (Common Cause v. Rucho). The defendants appealed the ruling and the case proceeded to the US Supreme Court. On June 27, 2019, the conservative majority of the court ruled that, though gerrymandering may not be democratic, the court does not find the issue justiciable. The decision on Rucho is a significant blow to anti-gerrymandering advocates and the results of this case will most surely kill any future action on Gill v. Whitford.

What options remain?

Though state courts may still be able to rule on gerrymandering issues, the Rucho ruling makes clear that we can no longer rely on courts for a solution to gerrymandering. The only logical remaining option requires an overhaul in the redistricting process.

The self-dealing nature of redistricting makes it an inherently political process. Thus, a handful of states have developed methods to remove politics out of the process. Eight states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, Washington) currently have an independent commission process. Most unique is the process used in the state of Iowa. Since 1980, the state of Iowa has relied upon the nonpartisan Legislative Service Bureau to draw redistricting maps, limiting any influence elected politicians can have on the process.

The Iowa model of redistricting was introduced in Wisconsin by Gov. Tony Evers earlier this year as part of his budget. Though the item was removed by the gerrymandering-influenced legislature, the hearing process revealed strong, bipartisan support for this model from residents throughout the state. This is a promising way to end partisan gerrymandering once and for all and we must advocate to our lawmakers for change before the next redistricting cycle.