Fact Tuesday: The Language of Partisan Gerrymandering
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What’s the story?
Tuesday the Supreme Court hears arguments in a potentially landmark case, Gill v. Whitford, concerning partisan gerrymandering, or the intentional reorganizing of legislative districts to privilege a single political party. To understand the importance of the case, and of the issue of partisan gerrymandering generally, it’s useful to have a strong grasp on the legal and political jargon.
Packing & Cracking
Packing and cracking are two of the main ways that partisan gerrymanders are accomplished. "Packing" involves drawing district lines to consolidate voters of the opposing party in a single district. This means the opposing party has more votes than they need to win in that particular district and not near enough to win in any others.
"Cracking" involves spreading voters for the opposing party thinly across multiple voting districts that safely lean to the other side in order to dilute the impact of their vote.
Wasted Votes & the Efficiency Gap
At the heart of Gill v Whitford is the proposal of an objective measure for assessing partisan gerrymanders, called the efficiency gap. The efficiency gap is based on the idea of "wasted votes." Wasted votes happen in two ways. One, all votes for the losing party are considered ‘wasted’. Two, all votes cast for the winning party above the number required to gain a simple majority are considered ‘wasted’.
The "efficiency gap." proposed in Gill v. Whitford based on the work of Eric McGhee, research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, and Nicholas Stephanopoulos, professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is a fairly simple formula:
The difference between the # of wasted votes by the losing party & the # of wasted votes by the winning party divided by the total number of votes in the state.
This formula creates a percentage of votes wasted. The authors of the efficiency gap propose that any district with an efficiency gap of more than 7 percent due to intentional steps taken by party officials to privilege their party be considered a partisan gerrymander worthy of legal challenge.
An efficiency gap can exist for reasons other than partisan gerrymandering, like simple geography. Many cities around the country lean Democratic simply because more Democrats live in urban areas. The issue in partisan gerrymandering isn’t this sort of geographical consolidation, but the intentional manipulation of voter distribution in districts to win seats without achieving a simple majority.
What do you think?
Does this help you understand the issue of partisan gerrymandering? Do you think the efficiency gap is an adequate measure to assess partisan gerrymanders? What do you hope the Supreme Court decides in Gill v. Whitford?
Tell us in the comments what you think, then use the Take Action button to tell your reps!
— Asha Sanaker
How the New Math of Gerrymandering Works — New York Times
Gill v. Whitford — Brennan Center for Justice
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