Can a bunch of mathematicians make government more representative?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 13 2009 2:10 PM

Of the Algorithms, by the Algorithms, for the Algorithms

Can a bunch of mathematicians make government more representative?

(Continued from Page 1)

Miller's point is that, by just about any measure of "compactness," one can imagine highly gerrymandered districts that still score pretty well. He and his co-authors prefer the term bizarreness for his measurement. Basically, it's an easily quantifiable standard that could contain gerrymandering without punishing legitimate districts that are funny-looking by necessity.

Still, how much does the shape of a district really tell us about the degree of political monkey business? If a district has to take a few odd turns to encompass a diverse, competitive group of voters, is that a bad thing?

Part of the difficulty of this debate is that no one can agree on the definition of a "perfect distribution"—that is, what the demographics of a district's population should be. Should they match the demographics of the whole state? Probably not; this would require slicing up urban areas like a pizza into different districts and would award a highly disproportionate number of seats to the majority party in the state. But the goal isn't necessarily to have the distribution of seats match the distribution of Democrats and Republicans in the state. If that were the idea, we could just hold elections the way many European countries do it. (One of the presenters said he gave a similar talk in Bulgaria, where the audience was totally perplexed at how complicated we make it here.)

The best idea of the session, which was arranged by Scientists & Engineers for America, came from Sam Hirsch, who is not a mathematician but a lawyer. He thinks redistricting should be a public contest that uses the law and the metrics developed by mathematicians as a scoring system. It's kind of like a Netflix Prize for redistricting.

Advertisement

Under the Hirsch plan, any public proposal would have to comply with the law and current standards for equal population, continuity, and so forth. For all the plans that passed this threshold, there would be three further metrics:

  • County integrity (matching district lines with county lines when possible);
  • Partisan fairness (roughly half the districts should be more Democratic than the state as a whole, while the other have should be more Republican—the system doesn't include third parties);
  • Competitiveness (a little more complicated, but recalculating previous election data according to the new districts).

The advantage of a plan like Hirsch's, which draws heavily on a lot of the mathematicians' research, is that it's quantifiable. Once plans start rolling in, any future proposal would have to score higher on those three metrics to be considered. And it would be fairly easy to substitute metrics if a particular state wanted, say, to value compactness (or nonbizarreness) over county integrity.

Hirsch is realistic about the odds that many states would adopt his plan wholesale (though his plan includes a sample constitutional amendment just in case), and it would take years for today's computers even to run the numbers on every possible plan. But the basic idea that districts can be rigorously quantified as to their competitiveness, bizarreness, congruity with media markets, racial enfranchisement—or any number of other metrics—is a potent one. Once plans can be evaluated according to measures that everyone can agree with, at least in principle, one needs only some form of competition to find the one that satisfies all parties reasonably equally. Screw the algorithms: Let the people do the heavy lifting.

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow us  on Twitter.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 21 2014 9:18 AM Oh, Boy Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:25 AM The Brilliant Fake Novels of Listen Up Philip
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 9:39 AM The International-Student Revolving Door Foreign students shouldn’t have to prove they’ll go home after graduating to get a visa.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.