Why the Democrats’ ‘efficiency gap’ is a crock

It will be a good eight months before the U.S. Supreme Court decides the Wisconsin gerrymandering case. Democrats think they have found the magic formula suggested by swing vote Anthony Kennedy 13 years ago. They call it the “efficiency gap.”

But (of all sources!) an analysis by the New York Times pretty much debunks the whole concept.

Efficiency gap measures the number of wasted votes that do not contribute to winning a legislative seat. ‘Pack” all the Democrats into Madison, for instance, and “crack” other liberal strongholds among several districts so as to render them minorities.

Map #4

All these Assembly districts are overwhelmingly Democrat(ic). To reduce the ‘efficiency gap’, mappers would have to extend tentacles radiating out from Madison far into surrounding counties. Now THAT would be gerrymandering!

Votes beyond the bare majority needed to win are wasted — that would be all but one of the 29,069 of the votes that Terese Berceau received in her westside Madison 77th district, for instance, where she was unopposed.

Also wasted are about 12,000 votes by which Republican Joel Kleefisch beat his Democratic opponent in his Oconomowoc-Watertown district (as well as all of the loser’s votes) because he only needed to win by one vote.

The Democrats’ experts settled on an arbitrary number — 7% — as being unacceptably “inefficient.”

The NY Times makes the point the Policy Werkes has been hammering: “Parties can naturally “pack” or “crack” themselves, simply because of how their voters are distributed geographically.”

The efficiency gap doesn’t distinguish between votes wasted by gerrymandering or by natural causes. … Democrats routinely win major cities with more than 80% of the vote. Nationally, virtually all of the seats with the most wasted votes in victory are Democratic-held urban districts. For the most part, they’re not gerrymandered at all.

The effect of all of these wasted Democratic votes in urban areas is considerable. It’s enough, for instance, to make a fair map in New York look like a partisan gerrymander. There, Hillary Clinton won more than 75 percent of the major party vote in 10 of the state’s 27 districts. But no gerrymandering was required as Mrs. Clinton won 81 percent of the major party vote in densely populated New York City.

What’s more, “The efficiency gap is very noisy. It can shift back and forth from cycle to cycle. That’s mainly because the efficiency gap emphasizes the difference between winning and losing a district. If you win by one vote, all of your opponents’ votes are wasted, and just one of yours; lose by one vote and the opposite is true.”

The irony, as we pointed out in “When you can’t win elections …” is this: if the goal is competitive legislative districts, mappers would have to draw squiggly lines that would make old Elbridge Gerry’s salamander district look neat and tidy. Such maps would trash accepted constitutional principles of compactness and municipal integrity.

If the court does rule against Wisconsin’s maps, the NY Times concludes, “Efficiency gap violations would spread to 18 of the 26 states with more than five congressional districts. The nonpartisan maps in Arizona and Minnesota, the bipartisan map in New Jersey, and, incredibly, the Democratic-drawn map in Illinois would all violate the 7% threshold in favor of the Republicans.”

For more number crunching with the NY Times’ Nate Cohn, check out Rural/Urban divide. Except in four states, rural voters went Trump.


About David Blaska

Madison WI
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12 Responses to Why the Democrats’ ‘efficiency gap’ is a crock

  1. old baldy says:

    “Absent a Supreme Court affirmation of a measure like the efficiency gap — and there’s no telling how the court will decide — the Voting Rights Act would be the only meaningful limit on partisan gerrymandering. Otherwise, only a vague, lingering attachment to the norms of the past might hold states back.”

    Maybe not the crock you claim it is…..


  2. Patrick M O'Loughlin says:

    I seem to recall a gerrymandering case that was brought be Republicans back in the 80’s. They were complaining about a district in the south somewhere, where Democrats had drawn borders that included two enclaves of black voters and the highway of 50 miles that connected them, but only the highway. Think of a barbell shape with a very thin line connecting the weights. It was obvious that the only purpose of the borders was to secure a majority black district, for the purpose of electing a black representative. And the SC ruled that was OK with them.


  3. Patrick M O'Loughlin says:

    It took them a while to figure out that if they crammed all the black constituents into a single district, they had to void the other districts of any significant numbers of black voters. This in turn, left the remaining white representatives free to ignore the concerns of black voters in their own districts, because there were not enough black votes for them to care about. The old law of unintended consequences.


  4. madisonexpat says:

    If getting an ID to vote is supposed to be waived if you are a minority, can the minority that is the NRA membership forego background checks?


  5. old baldy says:


    Just like a minority of US voters pulled the lever from trump. You going to claim minority status for that??


  6. madisonexpat says:

    I don’t have to, its all over the media industrial complex who forgot the Electoral College. Thank God Kellyanne and President Trump did not.


  7. coolkevs says:

    Trump was not playing the more people game – he was playing the Electoral College game – you know, the one written in the Constitution.


  8. madisonexpat says:

    While the “SMARTEST WOMAN in politics” spent big bucks advertising in California, and ceased polling in her “blue wall” states. Got a library copy of SHATTERED today. That and a tub of buttered popcorn and I’m all set.


  9. J. Bornstein says:

    You are correct that it’s not a perfect solution (i.e. Illinois and NY), but it has far more merit than you permit with your selective facts. The very NYT article you cite as evidence concludes that, ” it would probably address many of gerrymandering’s problems, with few downsides.”

    Unlike you the NYT authors strove for balance. You only include those portions under their heading, “What Doesn’t Work Well”.

    You don’t mention the other safeguards required beyond the formula including motive and consideration of geography.

    Further, the issue of wasted votes from districts without opponents is also resolved in the article
    through imputing the most recent presidential or competitive congressional results.


  10. Pingback: Gerrymander THIS, losers! | Stately Blaska Manor

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