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Mapping a New Direction

Specialist on gerrymandering discusses her ideas in campus lecture

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What might be a good way to solve America’s gerrymandering problem? How about bringing in the mathematicians.

That’s what is happening in Pennsylvania, after the Supreme Court ruled the state’s Congressional map was unconstitutional. Gov. Tom Wolf enlisted the help of Dr. Moon Duchin, associate professor of mathematics at Tufts University, to create new Congressional districts minus the usual partisan gerrymandering.

Dr. Duchin took a break from that work to visit campus Thursday for a lecture, “Math, Data Algorithms and Voting Rights,” which was sponsored by the Mathematics Department and the Investing in Democracy Project.

Professor Duchin is the leader of the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, a Boston-based team of mathematicians dedicated to finding ways to apply geometry and computing to U.S. redistricting. The members of the group believe, as their website claims, “that gerrymandering of all kinds is a fundamental threat to democracy.”

It would seem that the definition of gerrymandering is simple enough: You know it when you see it. If a Congressional district looks more like Goofy kicking Donald Duck, a stretched salamander or a pair of ear muffs as opposed to any geometric shape known to man, it’s probably a product of gerrymandering. However, it’s more complicated than that.

“The shape alone is not enough to tell you it’s gerrymandering, it depends on the people underneath and how they’re distributed,” Dr. Duchin said. In other words, who's being divided, why and how? Gerrymandering is done to pack together or exclude particular types of voters. Doing so for partisan reasons is legal, while doing so to dilute the aggregate vote of people of a particular race is not.

Dr. Duchin took the audience gathered inside the DMF Auditorium through a history of redistricting and presented some of today’s most egregious examples (see above, Goofy et al). Finding the best way to re-district a state is complicated. Factors such as population equality, contiguity and compactness (the shape of the district) are key, but just as important is the avoidance of dividing counties or splitting groups of particular types of voters and diminishing their voice in elections.

She is a proponent of using an algorithm that looks at various data to find a large number of potential ways of mapping each state, and then letting the politicians and courts pick one. It goes without saying the hope is they would pick a relatively neutral map.

This is the approach Dr. Duchin has brought to bear in solving Pennsylvania’s problem.

At the end of the day, she said she’s hopeful that the problem of gerrymandering can be addressed relatively soon. 

“I really like this emerging standard,” she said. In the meantime, Dr. Duchin recommended keeping an eye on the upcoming Supreme Court cases involving redistricting in a handful of states. (Story by John Winters, G ’11, University News)

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