Princeton Election Consortium

A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004

Pennsylvania Congressional gerrymander overturned – and it seems likely to stick

January 22nd, 2018, 2:51pm by Sam Wang


Update, February 5th: Justice Alito denied the Pennsylvania GOP legislators’ motion for a stay. He did so without referring the matter to the full Supreme Court. Justice Alito is one of the three most conservative members of the court, and a near-guaranteed vote against restrictions on partisan gerrymandering…based on the U.S. Constitution. I would call his ruling today a clear signal of what he thought of this desperate Hail Mary pass.

This doesn’t have any bearing on the federal cases in Wisconsin, Maryland, or North Carolina. But it does mean that Pennsylvania will have new Congressional maps within 1-2 weeks.

Update, January 26th: The Commonwealth Court has announced the details of the redistricting, including which definitions of compactness to use. They’ve also retained veteran redistricter Nathaniel Persily in case the legislative process does not produce an acceptable map.

Just in – Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court has overturned that state’s Congressional map as a partisan gerrymander. Maps are ordered to be redrawn there in time for this year’s November election (and the primary in May).

The order was 5-2, with the court’s two Republican appointees in the minority. However, even they were soft no’s. One of them, Chief Justice Saylor, wants to wait to see how Gill v. Whitford, the federal Wisconsin case, turns out. The other, Justice Mundy, says it is not clear which provision of the Commonwealth Constitution applies here. A third justice, Democrat-appointed Justice Baer, raised concerns that subsequent litigation will compress this year’s election calendar too much.

Of particular note, the court order says to redistrict by compactness, equal population, and preserving towns/counties/cities. However, no reference to communities of interest, which is probably good because it closes a loophole that partisans would otherwise try to exploit.

This decision is huge because it does not depend on the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it is based on the Commonwealth Constitution of Pennsylvania, which has First/Fourteenth-Amendment-like protections – but is not subject to appeal to the Supreme Court. I think intervention by the Supreme Court would occur only if the decision expressly contradicted federal law. Even if Gill were to win over Whitford in the Wisconsin case, a decision there would probably still not find a right to gerrymander in the U.S. Constitution. That said, Rick Hasen has described a possible Hail Mary strategy for the state of Pennsylvania. None of this will stop the initial appeals and litigation…but it sure seems like Pennsylvania just took a big step toward fairer districting for this cycle (2018 and 2020). Considering that Pennsylvania is the site of the (in)famous Vieth v. Jubelirer decision, it would be poetic justice.

What does this mean for this year? According to the order, the special election in the 18th Congressional District should proceed as planned, in March. That makes sense, since otherwise, dependent on the new boundaries, some Pennsylvanians would have two members of Congress and others would have none. After that, once the map is redrawn, political conditions in 2018 are likely to resemble 2012 for Democrats, or better. Neutral districting then would have led to 8-9 D seats. The actual result was 13 R, 5 D (and has been since then). Therefore today’s decision, implemented via neutral redistricting principles, might reasonably mean a 3 or 4-seat gain for Democrats.

→ 25 CommentsTags: 2018 Election · Redistricting

Gobbledygook 101: Buttercup Petals and Partisan Gerrymandering

January 17th, 2018, 9:34am by Sam Wang


What do all these phenomena have in common with partisan gerrymandering?
Tools developed over a century ago can help us detect and limit partisan gerrymandering today. Maps and geometry by themselves won’t do the job. Find out why in our new Vox explainer.

Image: table from Karl Pearson’s original 1895 paper on the mean-median difference.

→ 1 CommentTags: Redistricting

Politics & Polls #73: What does the North Carolina gerrymandering decision mean?

January 11th, 2018, 3:54pm by Sam Wang


Our podcast’s now available on Spotify!

Today, Julian Zelizer and I discussed the North Carolina court decision. What does it mean for reform ahead? Listen to the new Politics & Polls.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Politics · Princeton · Redistricting

CNN tonight, 11pm Eastern, on partisan gerrymandering

January 10th, 2018, 4:29pm by Sam Wang


I’ll appear in the 11 o’clock hour to talk about yesterday’s North Carolina partisan gerrymandering decision. I’ll be on with Don Lemon. He’ll also have the Reverend William Barber of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. Tune in!

For those of you who missed it, here’s the video.

→ 3 CommentsTags: Redistricting

North Carolina Congressional map struck down as a partisan gerrymander

January 9th, 2018, 5:33pm by Sam Wang


News flash – in League of Women Voters of North Carolina v. Rucho (and Common Cause v. Rucho), a federal court has found the Congressional district map to be an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. Decision here.

Recall that this is a map that was first found to be a racial gerrymander, and then was re-litigated as a partisan gerrymander. This is an important development – it’s the first time that any federal court has ever struck down a statewide districting plan on partisan grounds.

See the comment thread for my thoughts on what’s ahead. Also, as usual, many of my readers have excellent insights.

→ 14 CommentsTags: Redistricting

Democratic Party nominating rules for 2020

January 3rd, 2018, 8:52am by Sam Wang


Happy new year, all!

It’s too early to say who is in the running for the Democratic Party nomination for the Presidency. However, the shape of the playing field is starting to emerge. Courtesy of Josh Putnam at Frontloading HQ, here’s a rundown (in three parts) over recent rules changes. My insta-reaction:

Primaries versus caucuses: a wash. The balance of primaries and caucuses won’t change much. This means that overall, the nomination process may remain little-d democratic, in the sense of mostly favoring whoever gets more votes – as was the case in 2016.

Superdelegates slightly less super. The third FHQ post goes into depth on a change in the number and status of “superdelegates,” i.e. delegates with latitude to vote for whomever they want. In my view this issue was always a bit overblown – it was a vestige of the influence of party officials (on either side) over the nomination process. There’s been a long decline in the strength of party officials over the last few decades. This is why the rise of Trump was undetected by so many (though see my post in early 2016). The proposed change continues that trend. However, Putnam has some doubts about how easy it will be to implement.

As we saw in 2016, an outsider won the nomination on one side (Trump) and had a real shot on the other side (Sanders). There is no doubt that these outside forces have shaped the two parties. It appears that on the Democratic side, such change will be ever-so-slightly easier now.

A recruitment move…or a back door for mischief? One proposed change pops out – encouraging states to allow same-day party-switching. Wherever this is implemented, this means that independents – and Republicans – could vote in the Democratic primary. The intention appears to be to recruit more Democrats. However, one could imagine unintended consequences.

→ 11 CommentsTags: 2020 Election

Roy Moore as an ultimate test of the power of partisan loyalty

December 12th, 2017, 9:11pm by Sam Wang


Today’s Alabama special election to replace Senator Luther Strange (R) is of obvious interest for two reasons. First and foremost, since the Senate is now 52 R, 48 D/I. After tonight, it will either stay the same, or become 51 R, 49 D/I. This would adversely affect the legislative ability of an already-dysfunctional Republican Congress.

Second is the emotionally wrenching nature of the race. The Republican candidate, Roy Moore, has attained worldwide fame…for bad reasons. A judge who has been ejected from office for violating his oath, he is also credibly accused of acting on his sexual attraction to teenage girls, and of molesting a 14-year-old (that’s 8th grade). He runs against Democrat Doug Jones, a rock-ribbed Alabaman who is known for prosecuting KKK members who killed little girls in a bombing. Despite all this, Moore has been slightly favored to win. No matter who wins, the closeness of this race tells us something useful about the current national landscape.

Basically, partisanship overrides other factors in the current national political environment. As I’ve written before, voters these days don’t change their minds during a campaign, and they vote straight party ticket. We can use Roy Moore – and before him, Donald Trump – to measure the loyalty of Republican voters to their party. Think of these two specimens as useful extreme cases, which tell us just how entrenched voters have become.

Consider 2016. Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2 percentage points, despite the fact that House Republican candidates beat Democratic candidates by an average of 1.1 percentage point. That 3-point difference demonstrates just how few voters were put off by the most disruptive Republican candidate since Barry Goldwater. If that difference arose from GOP voters switching to minor-party candidates, it means that as many as 3% of voters were Republicans who couldn’t vote for Trump. Since Republicans were about 48% of the popular vote, that means about 6% of otherwise-Republicans nationally couldn’t vote for Trump – and 94% stuck with him. Even if we only count the approximately 38% of survey respondents who approve of his performance, that means 79% of Republican voters currently support him.

Now let us turn to Alabama, a deep-red state. In three statewide races in which no sexual predator was representing the Republican party, we have the following results:

2014 Governor: Robert Bentley (R) 64%, Parker Griffith (D) 36%.
2012 President: Mitt Romney (R) 61%, Barack Obama (D) 39%.
2010 Governor: Robert Bentley (R) 58%, Ron Sparks (D) 42%.

The median of those three races is R+22%. The last six polls for today’s race give a median of Moore +6%. That’s a swing of 16 points, which would be consistent with 8% of Alabama voters being turned off by a child molester and switching to the Democrat. (It could also be more, if the difference comes from depressed GOP enthusiasm.) If 61% of Alabama voters are Republican-preferring, it means that only 13% of Alabama Republicans will take a Democrat over a molester – and 87% of them are still okay with Moore. Even if Jones pulls out a win, this percentage only drops to around 82% of Republicans.

Obviously, turnout affects these calculations. For example, if Jones wins by getting higher turnout in the African-American community, that would suggest that GOP voters are loyal, but too demoralized to vote. That would be a surprise in a special election, and worth watching out for.

As Nancy Pelosi has said, Donald Trump’s success proves that to Republican voters, “any mammal will do.” Counting Roy Moore as a mammal, today’s election fits with that idea.

Update, Wednesday morning 8:00AM: Jones did win, by 2 percentage points. Which means we can quantify the Alabama swing as 24% toward Democrats. It should be noted that over 15% of this swing occurred before the Washington Post bombshell. A 15-point swing is consistent with other special elections this year. Yesterday’s election could only be made possible by Trump’s deep unpopularity.

Exit polls showed that 91% of Republicans voted for Moore. The discrepancy between that and 82% suggests that turnout played a major role – see my Twitter feed for analytics from others quantifying this.

→ 20 CommentsTags: 2016 Election · Senate

Another SCOTUS partisan gerrymandering case in 2017-2018 goes forward!

December 8th, 2017, 11:12pm by Sam Wang


This is quite novel. We are still waiting for the decision in Gill v. Whitford, this year’s big partisan-gerrymandering case before the Supreme Court. However, it turns out it’s just the first case. Now there’s a second one: Benisek v. Lamone.

There are other cases pending in lower courts. Why would SCOTUS take any of them? The first obvious point is that whichever way things go, Justice Anthony Kennedy appears to be intent on laying down a doctrine that spans multiple cases. He may retire this year, and maybe he’s a man in a hurry.

I can think of reasons why the Supreme Court would want to take on the Maryland case sooner (rather than wait until it finishes with Whitford). First, the other cases in North Carolina and Pennsylvania have a certain family resemblance to Gill v. Whitford: they have delegations large enough to have multi-member delegations on both sides – and both are Republican gerrymanders. In a sense, they are redundant. For these cases, it would likely be sufficient to wait for whatever new law is made in Whitford.

Maryland, on the other hand, has novel features. For the politically-minded, it was committed by Democrats. A second ruling, coming soon after Whitford, would nail partisan gerrymandering as a bipartisan offense.

However, the Court may be more interested in a technical issue: there’s only one GOP seat remaining in Maryland. It was gerrymandered by spreading Democrats around as evenly as possible in the other 7 districts. I have offered a test that shows this, but it is distinct from the ones that are offered in a closely-divided state like Wisconsin.

Another way to establish that Maryland was gerrymandered is to look closely at how the districts were drawn. There are few enough districts (only eight) that one could reasonably hope to examine a single district. The focus of the plaintiffs’ case is the 6th, where Democrats were poached from the DC burbs to make it blue. This way of thinking about gerrymandering is not in Whitford.

Finally, there is a *great* human-interest angle. This suit was originally brought by Steve Shapiro, who lacked a law degree at the time. SCOTUS ruled that the lower court had to take him seriously. Now that’s impressive.

→ 11 CommentsTags: House · Redistricting

Politics & Polls #67: What happened in Virginia? with Larry Sabato and Geoffrey Skelley

November 17th, 2017, 9:48am by Sam Wang


Democrats scored big wins last week in New Jersey and Virginia elections. Julian Zelizer and I chew it over with Larry Sabato and Geoffrey Skelley. Plus a tiny bit about whether Alabama will elect a child molester as senator, or choose a Democrat who prosecutes KKK terrorists. Life is full of hard choices. All in the new Politics & Polls.

→ 6 CommentsTags: Politics · Senate

Fall Football Lecture: Can Math Help Fix Bugs in Democracy?

November 11th, 2017, 12:14pm by Sam Wang


During college football season, the Princeton Alumni Association hosts fall lectures for people who come back to campus for the home games. This morning I gave the pregame lecture for the Yale game. My topic: can math help repair partisan gerrymandering and the Electoral College? Great audience, great questions.

There is no video available. However, the slides are here. The real-life experience is possible, but only if I come visit!

→ 2 CommentsTags: President · Princeton · Redistricting · U.S. Institutions