Using math to protect the Washington power structure


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What could possible go wrong? A group of mathematicians have written software designed to prevent the gerrymandering of congressional districts, and are offering that software as a weapon for the courts to force states to revise the districts, even though those districts were created by fairly elected state legislatures.

Leaning back in his chair, Jonathan Mattingly swings his legs up onto his desk, presses a key on his laptop and changes the results of the 2012 elections in North Carolina. On the screen, flickering lines and dots outline a map of the state’s 13 congressional districts, each of which chooses one person to send to the US House of Representatives. By tweaking the borders of those election districts, but not changing a single vote, Mattingly’s maps show candidates from the Democratic Party winning six, seven or even eight seats in the race. In reality, they won only four — despite earning a majority of votes overall.

Mattingly’s election simulations can’t rewrite history, but he hopes they will help to support democracy in the future — in his state and the nation as a whole. The mathematician, at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has designed an algorithm that pumps out random alternative versions of the state’s election maps — he’s created more than 24,000 so far — as part of an attempt to quantify the extent and impact of gerrymandering: when voting districts are drawn to favour or disfavour certain candidates or political parties.

There are numerous problems here, all of which center on my basic disbelief in the non-partisan objectivity of these scientists and their work.

First, note the first example used. Mattingly proudly shows how his software demonstrates that Democrats could have won more districts in North Carolina. In fact, if you read the article, he claims that the district revisions produced by his software (producing more victorious Democrats) creates fairer districts than the districts created by the state’s fairly elected Republican legislature. Moreover, it was the Republican redistricting that prompted this mathematician to write the software.

Funny how he never felt compelled to do this when it was Democrats controlling the legislatures and gerrymandering the congressional districts to their benefit.

Second, he has offered this software to the courts as evidence to overrule the redistricting done by fairly elected legislatures. In other words, this software will be used to justify letting unelected experts decide how congressional districts should be shaped, not elected officials picked by voters.

Third, note who has expressed interest in using this mathematician as a witness to win its lawsuits:

When representatives from Common Cause, a pro-democracy advocacy group based in Washington DC, saw the work, they asked Mattingly to serve as an expert witness in a North Carolina partisan-gerrymandering case coming up this summer. [emphasis mine]

To call the very leftist and partisan Common Cause a “pro-democracy advocacy group” is a perfect example of fake news, revealing the biases of the journal Nature that published this article. Common Cause has been pushing leftist policy and Democratic Party candidates now for decades. Its only goal is to help that party, and its leftist agenda. It is hardly pro-democracy, especially when Republicans win. That the mathematician and this leftist organization are teaming up is strong evidence that the mathematician is very partisan in his political goals.

In the end, this is all about power. The goal here is not to make redistricting fairer, but to rob elected officials their control over redistricting — a power expressly given to them by the Constitution — and placing that power instead in the hands of unelected experts so that they can work to guarantee that their allies win elections, not people they disagree with.

And these people wonder why Trump won.

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22 comments

  • Dick Eagleson

    More leftist lawfare.

  • LocalFluff

    This is not a mathematical problem. They say “math” to hide the subjective value judgements they make. As if it becomes objective because they put some random numbers and an arbitrary formula to it.

    The UK has extremely imbalanced MP districts. I can’t find it now, but I remember one MP being elected with less than 1 in 1,000 of the votes as another in 2015. On average, each seat for the Scottish Nationalist Party required 26,000 votes. For UKIP it took 3,800,000 votes to get their only seat. But it is not supposed to be a national proportional system. The question is what a congressional district is supposed to represent. If it should be an area, then the number of votes per representative will depend on how the population there evolves, which works well for the senators. Alternatively people born between certain dates could be defined as one congressional district regardless of where they live. That would get rid of waste from congressmen trying to move jobs to their district.

  • Des

    Gerrymandering is a problem and does need addressed. Simple maths suggests that if there are 13 districts and Democrats won a majority of the votes you would expect them to win 6,7, or 8 seats. This software is probably not the solution, but calling them lefties ignores the basic maths that agrees with them. Leaving the drawing of boundaries to elected officials will result in bias becoming involved. This can never be eliminated, but can be minimised.

  • LocalFluff

    Des,
    It is on purpose meant to NOT be proportional nationally. People are districted in order to get local candidates, local representation also from outside of each state’s largest city. Congressmen who are independent of political parties and individually have their own base of voters. One party can get 100% of the seats with 51% of the votes in every district. It is meant to be like that. Because you want individuals who are elected by a local majority and therefor has an incentive to deliver on their promises.

    You don’t want a proportional system where all candidates federally are selected by a handful of life-long apparatchiks in each party and that list is take-it-or-leave-it for the voters. They are actually not candidates, they are appointees. You won’t have any external candidates, like Sanders and Trump, if you have a proportional system. The parties will be closed, really tightly sealed sects, and totally dictated from the top. Inheriting your party board seat from your daddy is the only way to make career inside of a Swedish party and hence in politics at all.

    You can be a Trump Republican or a Cruz Republican, because they ran for majority as individuals. With proportionality there only exists the centrally controlled party to vote for. No candidate (MP appointee) or voter can in any way influence where the party is heading. MP candidates actually do not campaign in Sweden! The party leader takes care of all of that. The voter’s choice is the party or not the party, nothing any candidate can do to adjust that. That severely deteriorates the quality of politicians and removes them completely from contact with the people.

    No MP in Sweden has ever influenced any legislation. Law is made by the 8 party leaders who each has a number of votes that corresponds to the number of votes their party got. The 349 parliamentarians are only placeholders for that voting number, like US electors. Yeah, imagine having no Congress but instead permanent electors who are bound to vote as their party leader dictates. That’s the European continental system of proportionality instead of individuality, an anonymous collective party instead of MP’s each backed by a majority of voters in his district. With proportionality all MP’s become completely powerless. It is the party leader who decides if they will keep their seat in the next “election”, not the voters. With single-member districts it is instead the party that wants to attract the individual MP, who sits there on his own mandate by the people regardless of political parties.

  • wayne

    Highly recommend any of the work on Voting, done by Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita.
    [Rule #1: Select your own Voters.]

    “The Political Economy of Power”
    Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
    Econtalk with Prof Russ Roberts
    https://youtu.be/sWk2qDolvLs
    (1:28:02)

  • pzatchok

    I notice he ignored one of the main reasons for redistricting.

    Urban vs. rural.

    A rural district can instantly be turned urban by just adding a small portion of a population center to it.

    Farmers own, control or operate in many cases over half of any states land. Thus they are far more in touch with what that land can produce and how to use and protect it.
    Urbanites just want nice places to take pictures and camp or hike. Its a bonus if they can “experience” native wildlife. 90% never even go out to the country to do that but they think they know better how to use that land. In a few individual cases yes but in avast majority no.

    No urban resident would want some hayseed farmer coming into town and telling them how to live but they feel perfectly justified in telling that farmer how to run his life,business and care for his land.

    Gerrymandering is there for a reason. Otherwise we could just get rid of it entirely and go with each district is just each county. Our Washington representatives could then be chosen by and from our state(county) representatives.

  • pzatchok

    Should have added this into my above post.

    http://brilliantmaps.com/2016-county-election-map/

  • wayne

    minor expansion to my link to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita above.
    -Any of his Econtalk podcast’s with Russ Roberts, are informative. ( Econtalk DOT org )
    -His work is far more empirical than most. It’s more actual political science than it is socially-science-y, creative fiction.
    -I don’t necessarily endorse all his policy prescriptions, but his explanation’s of the mechanics of voting-at-the-street-level, are very persuasive.
    (And Rule #1 is always, “choose your own voter’s.”)

    pivoting to….
    pzatchok–
    You raise an excellent point, ref; urban vs. rural representation.

    The problem of gerrymandering has totally escalated –but under-the-radar– since the advent of the whole GIS (geographical info system) type of map-making & ability to rapidly manipulate boundary-lines on a house-by-house level, in ways that don’t look overtly gerrymandered & contorted.
    (tangentially– even in Michigan, we’ve had some very odd District boundaries’ that serve to keep a permanent lock on our 3 largest County’s – Detroit metro area, and some highly suspicious mapping of the more rural west-shore.

    There is a long & varied Court record regarding gerrymandering, but I don’t have any good links to offer right now and only going on memory.

    (Just one more on-going ‘thing to worry about eh?!)

    We do have a Census coming up pretty quickly, it’s important we have the Right people in place when that happens.

  • wayne

    pzatchok-
    Good map.

    (I see my County, is the wrong-color! and that is, disproportionately because of, in my opinion, gerrymandering, at a house-lot level.)

  • wayne

    pause….

    Gary Numan –
    Cars
    https://youtu.be/Ldyx3KHOFXw
    (3:49)

    … ‘cuz recently, these reCAPTCHA challenges for me, are 100% “identify the cars, roads, and/ or street-signs.”
    –is a pickup, a car?
    –does the street sign pole, count as part of the sign?

    Please continue….

  • Garry

    I think that some type of math/logic should be employed in redistricting, but I don’t think for a second that these people are interested in anything other than their own partisan agenda.

    I’ve always been uncomfortable with extreme gerrymandering, regardless of which party does it (I’m not a fan of either major party), and there must be a way of doing it more rationally / apolitically.

    One approach might be to keep as many counties/towns/school districts intact as possible, with a set hierarchy of which towns, etc. are to be divided between districts and what happens when an adjustment is needed.

    For example, assume we start with District 1 being towns A, B, C, D, and the western part of town E, and District 2 (to the east of District 1) being the eastern part of town E, plus towns F, G, H, and the western part of town I (the eastern part of town I belongs to District 3).

    When a new census occurs, we start by figuring out how many voters each district should have. We start with District 1, and to gain or lose voters from the existing tally, we adjust the border between Districts 1 and 2 by reallocating town E, moving the boundary east or west. If this adjustment isn’t enough, then we move to towns D, C, and B, (or towns F, G, and H) in this order, until we meet our target. We then move on to District 2, and adjust in the order of towns I, J, and K.

    This approach should keep each district contiguous, so long as the order of towns is set rationally.

    I’m sure there are a lot of complicating factors, but to me it makes sense to have voting district boundaries have a good level of consistency with other political boundaries (towns, etc.). In the US, I’ve always lived in suburban environments, and am not very familiar with how cities are organized, and this approach may not be as simple to apply to cities.

    I’m sure there are other methods that would be more rational than what we have now.

  • Garry

    Thanks, Wayne; I especially appreciate the closing line, “voters should choose legislators, not the other way around.”

  • LocalFluff

    Counties, like states, have borders with real legal meaning. Congressional districts should consist of entire counties. Wouldn’t that work? Changing the borders of a county means big reforms of administrating everything that counties are responsible for. Won’t be done so easily or quickly.

    Anyway, best is to reduce politics. Local sheriff and federal supreme commander. No need to elect anything more than that. The constitution is the law, no need for any new laws. 250 years later no one has come up with anything better. Get rid of the (re)legislators.

  • Edward

    So, now that a state can get a set of 24,000 randomly created possible outcomes for its districts, who chooses the one that they use? If we continue to have the legislators choose, then they will continue to find the outcome that gives the dominant party the advantage. It seems to me that this is a solution that only looks like a solution but fails to solve the root cause of the problem.

    It turns out that solving the root cause is not so easy as it may seem. California recently set up independent, bipartisan committees to more fairly create districts, but it turns out that these committees are not so independent or bipartisan after all. California even changed the way elections work, but it turns out to allow for two Democrats to run against each other with no Republican opposition candidate.

  • Laurie

    Decision making – garbage in, garbage out.

  • wayne

    LocalFluff–
    “Counties,” are purely State constructs for purposes of Local and State governing. (In Michigan and large parts of the Midwest, a County is roughly 36 square-miles.

    Federal Congressional districts, are apportioned by Population. (A Federal Constitutional requirement.)

    Garry–
    You might be interested in the “Theory of the Median Voter,” aka “Median Voter Theorem”
    This was 1st developed in the 1950’s and is an outgrowth of game-theory.
    Applicable to a 2 party, winner-take-all, format.

    highly recommend this as well:

    “The Myth of the Rational Voter”
    Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies
    Professor Bryan Caplan
    https://youtu.be/JVCSfaWF2bA
    (1:06:35)

  • LocalFluff

    US democracy doesn’t depend on districting. A Trump or Sanders can enter from the top and make all small attempts of cheating meaningless. US parties are open because they need a majority anyway. No idea to not have the most popular candidate on ones side in a winner-take-all system. The parties are slaves to the will of the majority, and to the initiative of anyone capable of winning that majority. The parties are only loose brand names that anyone can represent and fill with ones own ideas. In all other countries a political party is a closed sect, a family affair without external insight or influence. A continuation of the old royal courts, actually.

  • wayne

    LocalFluff–
    The President has to win Electoral Votes and those are apportioned to each State by Congressional Districts.

    Gerrymandering has a long history in the USA. Devious Progressive Statist’s have been manipulating elections, for our entire history.

  • ken anthony

    Whenever a lefty whines about fairness it means they’ve figured out a way to change the results in their favor.

    The right just doesn’t take the threat seriously enough.