A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Redistricting hearing: On day two in Franklin court, ‘expert’ says House maps give ‘extreme advantage’

By Al Cross
UK Institute for Rural Journalism

A Democratic redistricting expert testified Wednesday that the new map of state House districts has “perhaps the most extreme advantage for one party in a legislative map that I’ve ever seen,” and a Republican lawyer spent hours trying to discredit the expert and the methodology he used.

Near the end of a long day in Franklin Circuit Court, state Rep. Derrick Graham of Frankfort, chair of the state House Democratic Caucus, said the House map had discouraged Democrats from running for House seats. He also objected to the congressional map drawn by the legislature’s Republican majority.

Graham is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party against state election officials. It says the maps should be thrown out because they are extreme examples of partisan gerrymandering, violating the state constitution’s requirement that “All elections shall be free and equal.”

Rep. Derrick Graham

That is an untested legal argument. To make their case, Democrats hired expert witnesses from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Devin Caughey, an associate political science professor at MIT, testified Wednesday that while Republicans are likely to get 58.5 percent of the votes in this year’s state House races, they are likely to win 80 of the 100 seats. They have 75.

Caughey said the plan is more biased than 99 percent of the plans ever evaluated by PlanScore, a project of the Campaign Legal Center, which says it “fights for every American’s right to participate in the democratic process.” He used the project’s open-source software to evaluate the House and congressional maps.

Assistant Attorney General Victor Maddox used his cross-examination of Caughey to cast the project as one driven by partisan Democrats. Caughey said he is a registered Democrat who voted for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor of California and does not let his political beliefs influence his statistical analyses, and said the software and the project were developed and are overseen by “leading experts in that field.”

Maddox previewed testimony to come Thursday from Republican experts who say the software and Caughey don’t account for several factors that can influence the outcome of elections, including Kentucky’s political geography. He asked Caughey many questions about Kentucky geography that Caughey couldn’t answer.

Caughey said his analysis was statistical and limited to use of the PlanScore software, which uses recent election returns to measure the partisan bias of districting plans. It estimates the “efficiency gap” created by “wasted votes,” defined as those cast for a losing candidate, or every vote for a winning candidate above the number required for election.

Devin Caughey, MIT

“A party with many wasted votes is inefficient at translating votes into seats,” Caughey said in his written report. “The efficiency gap is thus defined as the difference in the share of wasted votes between the parties.”

One of the experts who will testify for the defense Thursday, University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss, noted in a written report that the plan drafted by House Democrats had an efficiency gap of 10.7%, while the Republicans’ plan was 13.4%. Caughey said that means the Republican plan makes three more seats likely to go Republican, and “It’s the 3 percent that takes this efficiency gap off the charts,” more biased than 98% of all other recent legislative plans across the nation.

Maddox noted that the House redistricting plan passed in 2013, when Democrats controlled the House, showed no efficiency gap when Voss ran it through PlanScore. Noting that Democrats lost 17 seats and their majority in the 2016 elections, Maddox asked Caughey, “PlanScore got it wildly wrong, right?”

Caughey said the software isn’t designed to predict the result of a particular election. After the 2016 elections, Republicans attributed several of their House-seat pickups to the coattails of Donald Trump, who carried the state by 30 percentage points.

Victor Maddox, Assistant Attorney General, Kentucky

Maddox objected to Caughey being qualified as an expert witness, but Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate overruled him, saying he wanted to make as complete as possible a record for the state Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide the issue.

Late in the day, Graham said he and other leaders of House Democrats made probably more than 100 calls to recruit candidates for this year’s House elections, but couldn’t find any candidates for 41 of the 100 House seats partly because prospective candidates were discouraged by the new map.

“Many of them told all three of us, ‘They changed the district, I cannot run in that district,’ and ‘I’m not sure if I can win in that district, based on the changes that have been made, nor can I raise the money that I’m gonna need to run against an incumbent’.” On cross-examination, Graham said he couldn’t recall who told him that without seeing his call list, which he said he did not have with him. He said many were in Western Kentucky.

Graham said the more important impact of the new map is public policy, because Democrats have so few legislative seats that they are “not able to work with the other side in developing policy.” He noted that the recent bill to fund charter schools passed the House 51-46. He agreed with an observation by plaintiffs’ attorney Casey Hinkle that “A few members can make a difference.”

Al Cross is director of the University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

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