AUGUSTA, Maine — A high-profile U.S. Supreme Court case on “gerrymandering” has heightened the national focus on partisan redistricting, but Maine’s legislative districts couldn’t be much fairer under a new statistical measure designed to root out unfair party advantages.
Redistricting resulted in few changes to the state’s two congressional districts in 2011 and 186 legislative districts in 2013. The small number of congressional districts and a closely divided Legislature make it hard for Maine to gerrymander, which means to manipulate political boundaries to benefit parties or classes.
It’s easier in other parts of the country, where Republicans have a steep overall advantage in state legislatures. An Associated Press analysis earlier this year found they won 22 more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than would be expected based on average vote shares.
Enter Gill v. Whitford, the case argued before the Supreme Court in October and awaiting a decision. Plaintiffs argue that district lines were constitutionally redrawn by Wisconsin Republicans in 2011 to give the party enduring electoral advantages. An earlier court decision relied partially on a new standard for that practice.
That statistical measure is called the “efficiency gap,” which compares whether electoral outcomes reflect the actual votes cast. It does so by tallying “wasted votes.”
There are two types of wasted votes in a two-person race — all votes for a losing candidate and all excess votes above 50 percent for a winning candidate. If virtually all wasted votes belong to the winning side, a district is packed. If mostly all belong to the losing side, it’s competitive.
Most elections have lots of wasted votes, but in Maine’s 2016 legislative races, they didn’t benefit either Republicans or Democrats in any major way. Statewide, that means legislative representation pretty much aligns with votes cast.
A Bangor Daily News analysis found 301,000 wasted votes in Maine House of Representatives elections and 315,000 in the Senate in 2016. But they were basically even for both parties, in relation to the turnout. Democrats wasted 2,700 more House votes; Republicans wasted 6,200 more in the Senate.
It may be small consolation to voters whose ballots were wasted, but it shows that for every such voter, someone voting for candidates in the opposite party felt the same way. (The analysis does not consider third-party candidates, who also won House seats in 2016).
Maine’s most packed districts aren’t really packed. Wasted votes are best evaluated at the state level. Going deeper, the BDN analysis flags six Senate and House districts as somewhat “packed” — meaning that the winning party wasted more votes than the losing party.
But there are other factors that explain these examples. All of these districts are lopsided in different ways. Three are House districts in liberal Portland where Democrats got 80 percent of votes. One was in a House district that is heavily Republican in Aroostook County.
On the Senate map, you see a similar wasted vote problem in the Portland district represented by Sen. Ben Chipman, a Democrat who won 67 percent of votes in a three-way race. The Augusta-area district of Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican, has a different problem — it leans Democratic, but Katz won in a landslide, wasting more Republican votes.
None of these things is necessarily bad. But we see the limits of using the efficiency gap analysis alone. It measures only whether the electoral map benefits one party or another.
What it doesn’t do is evaluate whether specific demographic groups or other blocs of voters with similar interests are being diluted across various districts. Humans have to do that work, and we just don’t see that going on in Maine.
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