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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One Comment

  1. 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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