Making Government Work

The Forces Fighting for Fairer Elections

October 12, 2017
by
The Forces Fighting for Fairer Elections
Demonstrators gather outside of the Supreme Court to call for an end to partisan gerrymandering. Photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images
As the Supreme Court debates extreme gerrymandering, meet the math nerds, science geeks, citizen activists and others working to solve our partisan map problem.

This year’s political buzzword? Gerrymandering.

Though the practice of redrawing voting districts to favor the party in power has been around for more than 200 years — and its merits debated for nearly as long — gerrymandering has recently become the cause du jour for Democrats. Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Gill v. Whitford. At issue: whether Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature manipulated districts so severely that Wisconsinites have essentially been denied their full right to vote. 

To be sure, extreme gerrymandering occurs on both sides of the aisle, though Republican victories in state legislatures during the past decade have put the GOP in charge of more maps. President Barack Obama highlighted the issue in his 2016 State of the Union address, saying, “We’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.”

While the Gill case has the potential to reshape the way states, ahem, shape their districts, here’s a look at some of the innovative ways advocates are changing the debate on extreme gerrymandering.

1. THE MATHEMATICIANS

What if, instead of people drawing voting maps, we let simple math do the work for us? That proposition is what led Moon Duchin, a math professor at Tufts University, to launch the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group (MGGG), which studies how to apply geometry and computing principles to create fair, compact voting districts. Through a series of regional workshops in 2017–18, Duchin and her team will train mathematicians and other academics to serve as expert witnesses in redistricting cases. The workshops, which kicked off with a five-day conference in Boston in August, will feature lectures by leading experts in mathematics, political science, law and civil rights, and will be partially open to the public as well as available online.

“We’ll be teaching them, but we’ll also be asking them questions,” Duchin said in an interview earlier this year. “At end of day, we want to produce something that leads to better standards.”

2. THE COMPUTER SCIENTISTS

Though a lower court ruled that computer algorithms were used in the Wisconsin case to give Republicans a disproportionate advantage, similar technology is also being employed elsewhere to do exactly the opposite.

Last month, data scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published a paper  touting the algorithm they developed, which can engineer a voting district according to whatever parameters are set by the user, while still ensuring certain geographic standards are met. Likewise, a different team from the university last year developed an algorithm that evaluates “extreme redistricting plans” created by lawmakers that can easily suss out how partisan they are.

The word “gerrymandering” comes from a map drawn by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812 with districts so convoluted they resembled a salamander.Photo by Elkanah Tisdale/Wikimedia Commons

3. THE CITIZEN CARTOGRAPHERS

If scientists and mathematicians fail, there’s always DIY redistricting. Open software like DistrictBuilder and The Public Mapping Project  is available to the public, as is Dave’s Redistricting, created by a Seattle software engineer. Such transparent mapmaking resources allow local and state governments, advocates, and regular citizens to kick the tires of proposed districts, to see if they are as fair as possible.

4. THE STATES

In an effort to reduce the impact of partisanship, some states have charged independent panels with creating election maps. Arizona, for example, has seen some of the most competitive races in the country since implementing its panel in 2001, producing statistically lower margins of victory compared to the nation as a whole. California’s 14-person panel isn’t allowed to consider partisan data when drawing its maps; the result has similarly increased competitiveness, with the average margin of victory 30 percent lower in 2011 than it was in 10 years prior, before the creation of the commission.

And then there’s Iowa, which relies on an advisory board to draft voting districts. The state legislature then gets final approval; if they reject it three times, Iowa’s highest court will intervene.

5. THE VOTING-REFORM ACTIVISTS

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, is used to pick Oscar winners, the Australian House of Representatives, and the presidents of Ireland and India. In this system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If there’s no winner on the first round, the candidate with the fewest votes is removed, and the votes are re-tabulated. The result is a winner with a higher chance of representing the majority of voters. Maine voters approved the method in a ballot initiative last November, and while the state’s court later called the measure unconstitutional, it is still in effect.

FairVote.org, a nonpartisan group advocating for election reform, also promotes ranked-choice voting, and a bill calling for it in Congressional representative elections has been introduced by Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat.

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While none of these possibilities remove fallible, political humans entirely from the redistricting process, each would probably be better than the flawed system we have now, and, with the fate of the republic at stake, merits consideration.

“What’s really behind all of this?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked in court last Tuesday, before answering her own question: “The precious right to vote.”

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