July | August 2017






Where Does Gerrymandering Begin

By Jennifer Ginn, CSG Associate Editor
The U.S. Supreme Court and researchers at Duke University are looking at the same question. When does redistricting move from using a partisan advantage into gerrymandering?
Lisa Soronen, executive director of the State and Local Legal Center, said the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus vs. Alabama case currently being decided by the Supreme Court concerns a redistricting plan set up by the courts in 1990. Soronen was one of the featured speakers on a recent CSG eCademy webcast, “Drawing the Line on Partisanship in Redistricting.”
“A court drew a plan that had 27 majority-minority districts for the House and eight for the Senate,” Soronen said. “So in 2000, the Democrats had control of the legislature and they maintained the status quo, the same number of majority-minority districts.
“Then in 2010, the Republicans gained control and they noted that a number of the majority-minority districts were under populated. It had a lot to do with population shifts and which demographics were growing and which weren’t.”
Soronen said the Republican redistricting plan followed three goals: no more than a 2 percent deviation in population among districts, preserve the number of minority-majority districts and lastly, maintain the percentage of voters in the minority-majority districts.
“… Black voters said they were packed into districts where they were already a solid majority,” she said. “And the result of this, they said, was it now became difficult for them in districts where they were a minority to form a coalition, to get the representative elected that they wanted.
“As evidence, they cited the fact that 70 percent of districts that were between 30 and 50 percent black were moved to majority-minority districts. It’s probably a controversial point that the percentage of black voters in the majority-minority districts before redistricting were already quite high, sometimes approaching 65 to 70 percent.”
Soronen said the justices have several big picture questions to decide, such as how much use of race is too much. Everyone agrees that race has to be considered in redistricting, but it can’t be the predominant factor. Just what that means is for the court to decide, she said.
“So the second question the court has to wrestle with is, is this race or is this politics,” she said. “If you’re a Republican, of course you want to pack more reliably Democratic voters into fewer districts. Considering blacks in Alabama, their voting is so highly correlated with their status as Democrats, that it’s sort of hard to tease out was Alabama focusing on race or was it focusing on party, since they’re so connected.”
Jonathan Mattingly, professor of mathematics and statistical sciences at Duke University, has developed a mathematical model that may prove useful for trying to decide that fine line between political advantage and gerrymandering.
“This was initially motivated … by the 2012 Congressional elections in North Carolina where the majority of North Carolinians voted Democratic, but yet there were nine of 13 Republicans elected to the Congressional seats in Congress,” Mattingly said.
“There’s differences in the state,” he said. “There’s differences in the urban versus rural, the mountains and the coast, the Piedmont. Those give rise to natural regions. If you want to preserve regionalism, an important concept in our government, maybe this was just the outcome.”
Mattingly said researchers took the 2012 Congressional election information at the precinct level. They randomly redrew district lines following two guides: keep the population roughly equal between districts and keep the districts relatively compact. They reran the 2012 election several hundred times with different configurations and typically got between six and eight Democrats elected, a much different outcome from the four who actually were elected in 2012.
“We never thought we could remove politics from the discussion,” he said. “We just wanted to be able to identify when a redistricting was maybe beyond the pale, when it was so far out of whack with what was being expressed in the votes that maybe it should be reconsidered.”
Mattingly said one limitation of this experiment was that the random drawing of districts did not take establishing majority-minority districts into consideration. The research is going to be continued this year in other Congressional districts that appear gerrymandered, taking into consideration minority-majority districts, to see if the results are consistent.
“We were not proposing a way to automate … redistricting,” Mattingly said. “What we were really trying to do was give some idea about how to decide whether a particular redistricting was representative.”
Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, said it’s important for policymakers and citizens to realize the reality behind redistricting.
“Certainly, any kind of line drawing will have an anticipated or an unanticipated outcome,” Brace said. “It will have a political impact. I don’t think you can take partisanship out of the redistricting process. I think you just have to understand that it’s going to be there and how do you deal with it.”
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