Maps consultants say GOP proposals are gerrymanders

By: - February 1, 2024 9:45 pm

The Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

The two conservative-proposed sets of legislative maps submitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court amount to  partisan gerrymandering, while the other four proposals — which would potentially give Democrats their first shot at winning a legislative majority for the first time in more than a decade — are “nearly indistinguishable,” redistricting consultants told the Court Thursday. 

The two consultants, Carnegie Mellon professor Jonathan Cervas and University of California Irvine professor Bernard Grofman, didn’t choose a preferred map and left some questions to be decided by the Court, yet the report is a win for Democrats as it likely eliminates the two conservative maps from consideration. The report gives the Court, which is controlled 4-3 by liberals, the opportunity to select maps that give Democrats a shot at winning majority control in an election year. 

The report came just over a month after the Court declared the current maps unconstitutional on the grounds that they included districts that were illegally noncontiguous — meaning there were portions of districts entirely separate from the rest of the district. The Court asked for maps proposals that comply with seven metrics: equal populations in each district; the number of split county, precinct, town or ward lines; the contiguity of the districts; the compactness of the districts; their compliance with federal law including the Voting Rights Act; their preservation of communities of interest such as the minority populations in and around Milwaukee and their partisan lean. 

Prior to the Court tossing out the current maps, Wisconsin had spent more than a decade with maps that were widely considered among the most gerrymandered in the country — locking in Republican control of the Legislature for that entire span. 

Maps were submitted by the group of voters who brought the initial lawsuit, represented by the voting rights focused firm Law Forward, Gov. Tony Evers, Republican legislators, Senate Democrats, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, and intervenors who joined the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs. 

Evers said in a statement that the report marked one step toward Wisconsin voters living under fair maps. 

“This report plainly affirms for Wisconsinites what we’ve said all along: the maps Republicans submitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court are nothing more than a partisan gerrymander,” he said. “The days of Wisconsinites living under some of the most gerrymandered maps in the country are numbered. While this is just one step in this process, today is an important day for the people of Wisconsin who deserve maps that are fair, responsive, and reflect the will of the people.”

Cervas and Grofman used three metrics to assess partisan neutrality and assessed how the proposed maps would perform across the last 13 statewide elections. 

The report found that the Legislative maps were the worst on all the metrics, while the WILL maps complied with many of the requirements yet their partisan lean toward Republicans amounted to a “stealth gerrymander.” 

“The Legislative plan is a partisan gerrymander … The next most extreme deviation from majority rule was found in the maps introduced by [WILL],” the report states. “These maps, though having a slight reduction in bias, are so biased in partisan terms that they can clearly be labeled partisan gerrymanders in a pro-Republican direction. However, because the [WILL] maps score very well on traditional good government criteria — in fact, score the best on various measures of splits of political subdivisions — we would characterize them as what we have elsewhere labeled as stealth gerrymanders. As we have defined it, a stealth gerrymander is a plan that looks on its face to be a good map in that it satisfies to a considerable degree traditional good government criteria, but yet it exhibits an extreme level of partisan bias.” 

After the report’s release, WILL president Rick Esenberg attacked the consultants as partisans. 

“The report hides its bias behind a fog of faux sophistication,” he said in a statement. “Let’s be clear, our maps have been rejected for one reason and one reason alone, they don’t produce the partisan outcomes the experts or many on the Court want. So, they ignore all the traditional tests for partisan bias. It is what Chief Justice Roberts has called social science gobbledygook: Obfuscation that hides one’s preferences so that it needn’t be justified.”

In addition to dismissing the two conservative plans, the report also counters the chief complaints Republicans and their allies have raised about the other maps proposals: the number of Republican incumbents who are moved into the same district and that the state’s political geography naturally favors Republicans. 

Since the release of the proposals, conservatives have said that the ones from Democrats and their allies constitute reverse gerrymanders because they put current Republican incumbents into districts together, forcing them to run primary races against each other. The report notes that any plan that makes the legislative maps more politically even will pair more Republican incumbents together because there were more Republicans to start with. 

Additionally, the report notes that the existence of the other four proposals proves that the state’s political geography — with Democratic voters largely clustered in urban areas while Republican voters are mostly spread across the countryside — doesn’t mean Republicans must win a near supermajority. 

“It has been argued … that the poor Democratic results for the plans [conservatives] submitted are due simply to the electoral geography of Wisconsin, which acts to disadvantage parties whose electoral strength is more geographically concentrated,” the report states. “As numerous scholars have demonstrated, both theoretically and empirically, even in states where the electoral geography favors one party, it is possible to draw plans that satisfy traditional good government but that nonetheless provide something close to political neutrality.” 

“To put it simply, in Wisconsin, geography is not destiny,” it continues.

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.