How Computers Turned Gerrymandering Into a Science

from NYTs

About as many Democrats live in Wisconsin as Republicans do. But you wouldn’t know it from the Wisconsin State Assembly, where Republicans hold 65 percent of the seats, a bigger majority than Republican legislators enjoy in conservative states like Texas and Kentucky.

The United States Supreme Court is trying to understand how that happened. On Tuesday, the justices heard oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, reviewing a three-judge panel’s determination that Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn district map is so flagrantly gerrymandered that it denies Wisconsinites their full right to vote. A long list of elected officials, representing both parties, have filed briefs asking the justices to uphold the panel’s ruling.

Other people don’t see a problem. Politics, they say, is a game where whoever’s ahead gets to change the rules on the fly. It’s about winning, not being fair.

But this isn’t just a politics story; it’s also a technology story. Gerrymandering used to be an art, but advanced computation has made it a science. Wisconsin’s Republican legislators, after their victory in the census year of 2010, tried out map after map, tweak after tweak. They ran each potential map through computer algorithms that tested its performance in a wide range of political climates. The map they adopted is precisely engineered to assure Republican control in all but the most extreme circumstances.

In a gerrymandered map, you concentrate opposing voters in a few districts where you lose big, and win the rest by modest margins. But it’s risky to count on a lot of close wins, which can easily flip to close losses. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor thought this risk meant the Supreme Court didn’t need to step in. In a 1986 case, she wrote that “there is good reason to think political gerrymandering is a self-limiting enterprise” since “an overambitious gerrymander can lead to disaster for the legislative majority.”

More here.

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5 Responses to How Computers Turned Gerrymandering Into a Science

  1. Li Zonghao October 13, 2017 at 1:10 pm #

    Gerrymandering, the act of manipulating district boundaries to gain a political advantage, has always been around, but it never posed as big of a risk as it does now. Before, gerrymandering has its own risks in that drafted borders result in one area of huge losses and a lot of areas with marginal victories. In 1986, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor contended that there is no need to restrict gerrymandering because it hinges on marginal victories; there is still the risk of losing because the chances are just somewhat better than a coin flip. However, with computers now to run simulations, gerrymandering is very much like any other science where the scientist gathers data to derive a result.
    The new practice of computer-facilitated gerrymandering creates a huge problem. For example, in Wisconsin where Democrat and Republican numbers are very close, gerrymandering created an advantage to result in 65% Republican seats. Although supporters and liberals such as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor may support gerrymandering because it contains inherent risks, this new gerrymandering that eliminates risks through computation creates a problem. Without risks, residents of Wisconsin will consistently be denied of their full right to vote.
    Ethics of gerrymandering aside, scientists at Duke related Republicans’ gerrymandering to Volkswagen’s defrauding of customers. Much like when the antipollution system kicks in only when being checked, its map is altered to show a healthy Republican majority when the map is tested by an electorate that leans Democratic. What else is there to say other than fraud?
    Volkswagen is dealing with a class action lawsuit against falsifying pollution test results, and similarly, the Republicans manipulated the voting process to favor itself at the expense of the American people.
    When we consider that these government officials are taking the American people’s tax money to their own benefits, the unethical nature of gerrymandering is clear. The government and all government affiliated organizations and personnel should maintain integrity to serve the people. Private companies are often caught when they engage in information manipulation because they are always under the scrutiny of both the government and public. Vigilant individuals can report such illegal actions by using the appropriate law.
    Just like there are laws and mechanics to prevent malicious intentions such as statute of frauds and scienter, we should never allow manipulation in any form. If Poland Spring cannot promote false “spring water” labels its own benefit and if Uber cannot promote the false view that its services are safer than taxis for its own benefit, then why should we allow government officials to manipulate information for their own benefits?
    Furthermore, even if we take away the ethics argument, we should consider one of the most important founding principles which America is based on, freedom. The Constitution ensures freedom in many avenues such as ensuring free speech in the 1st amendment. America also functions as a democratic state. However, gerrymandering spits in the face of these ideals because of its nature of duplicity and manipulation by restricting the people’s freedom to vote. If anything, gerrymandering should be limited and banned because it goes against what truly makes America great, freedom.

  2. KM October 14, 2017 at 5:13 pm #

    Prior to reading Jordan Ellenberg’s article “How Computers Turned Gerrymandering Into a Science”, I must admit that I had not given the concept of gerrymandering the consideration it deserved and personally I understated the importance of the topic. With all of the attention in the news about potential Russian meddling in U.S. elections (see article “Senate Intelligence Heads Warn That Russian Election Meddling Continues” by Nicholas Fandos) and Facebook selling political ads to fake Russian users (see article “Facebook’s Russia-Linked Ads Came in Many Disguises” by Mike Isaac and Scott Shane) why has an internal threat to democracy, such as gerrymandering, been allowed to continue with little outcry until recently? As Ellenberg mentions in his article, the way the map is drawn in Wisconsin is so “flagrantly gerrymandered that it denies Wisconsinites their full right to vote.” Wisconsin is not the only state where gerrymandering occurs. According to “Prominent Republicans Urge Supreme Court to End Gerrymandering” by Adam Liptak in the New York Times, gerrymandering has also occurred in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, through the actions of Republicans, as well as through actions of Democrats in Illinois, Maryland, and Rhode Island.
    It is unfair to us as voters to be taking part in a “rigged system” as Mr. Schwarzenegger commented in Liptak’s article. I agree. It isn’t a matter of Republican vs. Democrat, as both parties have benefited from its use; it’s a matter of right vs. wrong and ethical vs. unethical. Liptak’s article provides the example of how flagrant the gerrymandering in Wisconsin is as “Republicans won 48.6 percent of the statewide votes for Assembly candidates but captured 60 of the Assembly’s 99 seats.” Just imagine how much of an impact this practice has on the overall voting within the country as Wisconsin is not the only state in which gerrymandering occurs. It really is disheartening as a citizen and voter that my voice, and those of other voters, may not be fully heard. Every voter, regardless of party, has the right for their vote to be equally considered.
    The underlying theme of Ellenberg’s article is how technology, namely advanced computation, has helped to achieve strategically engineered districting maps and has caused gerrymandering to become a science with more reliable results than prior practices. Technology has invaded many aspects of our society and it was only a matter of time that it would be utilized in the political realm to aid in impacting voting. Not all uses of technology have positive benefits for society and I think this is one way that the use of computer aided advanced processes threaten our democracy and the power of our individual vote. However, I do feel that Ellenberg makes a valid point in saying that you can fight advanced math with advanced math, and advanced computations can also be used to monitor and discover cases of extreme gerrymandering, not just create them.
    I also feel that Ellenberg’s article also brings to the forefront the impact that technology has on the legal environment. Prior to the pervasiveness of computers and advanced computations in the gerrymandering process, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor felt there was enough risk in the process to make it a “self-limiting enterprise.” This is really no longer the case. Computers have the power to interpret and manipulate such large amounts of data that humans would never be able to process. I feel that technology has and will continue to have a great impact on our legal system. We now have to consider how technology impacts our laws and how these laws need to be changed, adapted, or in some cases, created, in order to address the ever growing issue of technology in our society. This issue is far reaching and extends well beyond gerrymandering.
    It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court rules on Gill v. Whitford because it has the potential to have, as Ellenberg states, “major implications for American democracy.” Gerrymandering, particularly with the aid of computers, has afforded both parties the opportunity to manipulate the democratic process to achieve favorable results. An election map has never been struck down by the Supreme Court as a political gerrymander, but maybe with considering the added effects of technology, this case will have a different outcome. (Liptak, Adam) Times have changed since the days that the Court ruled on a similar matter in 1986 and hopefully the Court will recognize this.

    Additional Sources:

    Article by Nicholas Fandos:

    Article by Mike Isaac and Scott Shane:

    Article by Adam Liptak:

  3. Shiyun Ye October 20, 2017 at 8:51 pm #

    In Wisconsin, it turns out that the Republican party has actually managed to use computing technology to manipulate the areas that are used to vote. Because of this gerrymandering, the Republicans in Wisconsin have a 65% majority in their state, which is insane since the split is roughly fifty percent each when it comes to republicans and democrats. Because the republican party in Wisconsin has done such an effective job at manipulating state voting maps to work in their favor, they have majorities that reach higher in favor of the republican party than even states like Texas, that are famous for their far right leanings and conservative values. This use of gerrymandering is horrifying for the American public as a whole, as the use of computing to change the outcome of elections by rearranging districts is unethical at the least. Fortunately, the dishonest use of technology can also be countered by positive use of technology, where the software can be checked to see if they are in fact using dishonest methods to change the outcomes of election. This method of combating the gerrymandering system can certainly help in the short term, but there must be a long term solution also put into place. Luckily, the article discusses how there is a three judge panel that has actually reached the supreme court to rule on their case. In all likelihood, it will not outright stop gerrymandering, as with everything else, loopholes and workarounds are always found, making the laws a constant game of cat an mouse with the court just trying to catch up with our modern technology to try and stop immoral work from happening as quickly as it can recognize any. The article also brings up that this case is very similar to the use of technology to work around emission standard tests by Volkswagen. They too used technology that was incredibly clever in how it manipulated, and the even more impressive and scary aspect is that both systems could detect when they were being tested or examined, and in Volkswagen’s case, this would put the car into fuel saving mode, appearing to be a proper fuel efficient car. In the gerrymandering case, the system would give out unbiased maps if it were being examined by the wrong people, so nobody but the republicans would be able to find out that there was gerrymandering going on. Gerrymandering has gone on for centuries in the American government, becoming more and more prevalent as technology has improved, as simulations and algorithms available to us are light years ahead of anything we had just twenty years ago. This massive leap in technology is how the gerrymandering has been able to be used so effectively and go largely under the radar, but, as the cat and mouse game always goes, the government will catch up to the dishonest tactics, and the tacticians will have to once again find another work around, loophole, or hopefully, allow elections to go on honesty and take the results the people want, not what the elite want.

  4. Erik Peterson November 4, 2017 at 1:17 pm #

    In today’s political scene, Gerrymandering is a huge problem that faces voters everywhere. Gerrymandering is described as “a practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group be manipulating district boundaries.” A lot of the time, gerrymandering carries a negative connotation with it, as some people would consider it to be “cheating” on a political scale. In a recent supreme court case, Gill v Whitford, the act of gerrymandering within the state of Wisconsin was brought into consideration. Gerrymandering has been looked upon as an acceptable tactic in the past, because there is no way to regulate it, and further, there was only a qualitative way to devise tactics when an election was at hand. Nowadays, in the digital age, there are software programs that are able to quantify the data, and run through several thousand scenarios, in order for candidates to get the best results. Gerrymandering has evolved from a subjective political tactic into an objective science, where it is very possible for those in power to stay in power for a very long time, just based on the density of voters in each particular district.
    Personally, I think that gerrymandering can cause a lot of problems in today’s political landscape. Although I don’t consider it to be cheating per say, I do think that it could give one candidate an unfair advantage over another, ultimately changing the outcome of an election. I think that as an American citizen, my vote should carry the exact same weight as someone who lives in a different district than myself. Gerrymandering could potentially make my vote less important than someone else’s’ in a district that has a more even spread of voters than mine. That being said, I don’t think that there is a way to effectively stop politicians from using software in order to gain an advantage. Also, I believe that if all of the candidates involved in an election have the same technologies, then there is not really any cheating involved, since the playing field is even.
    Furthermore, the article brings up an extremely valid point. It is quite common for people of the same political beliefs to cluster themselves in a particular city or region, which effectively lets one party win big in that one region, but dilutes the remaining votes in the remaining districts. This can even be seen in an election as big as the presidential elections. Most democratic voters live on the east and west coasts, while many republican voters live in between the coasts. Further, more people overall live on the coasts. This scenario will make it seem like the popular vote in the presidential election is very even, but the electoral votes will go completely differently, since more states overall will vote republican. Although the democrats will win huge in states like California, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia, they will lose the overall election, because most of the states in the middle of the country will vote republican, because there are fewer democratic voters in those states.
    Gerrymandering is a very interesting aspect of elections, and although it might seem unfair that information like this can be used to reduce the power of some citizens’ votes, I can totally see it as a vital tool to any politician in any election.

  5. Buffolinom October 5, 2018 at 3:21 pm #

    Gerrymandering has been a topic of political debate for many years and it has only been refined more since then. Gerrymandering is the process of creating voting districts in a way that created unfair advantages for whoever draws the lines. It is used by both Democrats and Republicans to gain advantages for their parties in voting districts. This has been shown to have effects on elections in the past where states would have many more votes for Democrats and yet more Republicans would be elected into office. This is because the voting districts were drawn in a way that groups all the voters of the same party into the same districts so that there votes effect is limited to a region where there is pretty much no competition on the other side. But by grouping all the voters of one party into one or a few districts, that spreads the opposition votes out into the other districts and allows them to elect more representatives.
    Computers have made gerrymandering even more technical because of their ability to run simulations based on a multitude of different district layouts and nominees so that it almost guarantees success for the party who draws the lines. This kind of power can keep a certain party in power for years and since the party that is in power draws the lines, they will keep drawing the lines to keep their advantage. Cases that go to the courts to show biased gerrymandered maps are also hard to prove a scheme on because the standards for gerrymandering are very hard to meet and that means that many maps get passed through even when they do show bias. But there has to be another way.
    Many politicians say that there is no way to make a unbiased map because all politicians are biased, even people who could be hired an independent committees have political bias. Personally I feel that gerrymandering is necessary but it is don’t in the wrong way. Also I would disagree with the politicians that say you cannot make a biased map because the computers that they are using to make maps that favor themselves, are capable of creating unbiased maps. Computers are objective in their base operation, so if voter data was input with the right parameters for creating an equal map, the computer could do it. I think that that should be something that is looked into for making fair maps, as long as it is proven that the parameters are correct for creating a fair map.

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