The Journal Sentinel editorial board thinks it has found an egregious example of bizarre gerrymandering in the recent redrawing of the 21st and 22nd Senate districts. I beg to differ.
First, let's go to the "eye test." The board thinks that the new 21st
district is an imaginatively shaped "barrel" that could not be found in a
"natural" world of redistricting. But as these things go, the shape of
the 21st is not all that unusual. While it is far from the most compact
and contiguous district you could draw, there are plenty that are worse.
If you really want to see bizarrely shaped legislative districts, look
at some of these, .
Beyond that, it is not hard to defend the new 21st and 22nd on
traditional redistricting principles which are are not limited to
drawing a contiguous and compact set of districts or respecting existing
political boundaries. For example, it is often argued that
redistricting should respect "communities of interest," i.e., there
should be an effort to draw boundaries in a way that includes citizens
with common concerns.
The new 21st and 22d districts may well serve that principle. Voters
in the cities of Racine and Kenosha may have more interests in common
than they have with the suburban and rural residents of their respective
This is not to say that there is no political
consequence of respecting such communities. One man's respect for
"community of interest" may be another's deployment of the time honored
redistricting device of "packing" voters.
But splitting up - or "cracking" - like-minded voters is another way of gerrymandering.
This is why the United States Supreme Court has effectively made
court challenges to partisan gerrymanders impossible. There is no such
thing as an "ideal" map. There are six or seven common "nonpartisan"
redistricting principles. Unfortunately, they often contradict each
other. For example, keeping "communities of interest" within the same
district may require ignoring municipal boundaries or drawing a map
which departs from the state wide partisan balance of power or which
maximizes competitive districts.
One solution might be to put the drawing of maps in "non-partisan" hands.
Good luck with that.
editorial board offers two alternatives. One is to create a nonpartisan
commission such as California's - a commission which is now under fire
for acting in a partisan fashion (as the paper's op-ed concedes.)
"Non-partisan" solutions rarely remain non-partisan and often succeed
only in driving the politics underground. It is notoriously difficult to drive the politics out of something that is inherently political.
It is not at all clear that a nonpartisan approach will not have
partisan implications. Many people believe that a map which draws
districts in a way that maximizes things like the regularity of their
shape and adherence to municipal boundaries will tend to benefit
Republicans. This is because Democratic voters tend to be "packed"
together in a way that Republican voters are not.
If that's true, then we can expect partisan wrangling to continue in a
non-partisan context. Indeed, the battle over the redistricting criteria
to be used may become partisan.
The other alternative
suggested by the board is to restrict the legislature to alternatives
presented by a putatively independent state agency associated with the
legislature, such as the Legislative Reference Bureau. But whether such
an agency would be free of pro-incumbent bias - or would not be captured
by one party - seems unclear. Again, there is likely to be a partisan
fight over which non-partisan interests to employ.
At best, this alternative would certainly moderate the potential for a gerrymandered where one party has both houses of the legislature and the state house. At worst, it would be a recipe for gridlock.
is not to say that redistricting reform is necessarily a bad idea. It
may well deserve consideration. My point is only that the matter is not
as simple as it may seem to be.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin