This week, I am at the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group’s conference/workshop in Somerville, and, given my poor level of information retention from EC earlier this summer, I wanted to take a more deliberate approach to absorbing and processing the information that’s being given to me this week. I’m taking notes during the talks and I’ve decided to write these blog posts to reflect on each day of the conference, for both my benefit and yours, dear reader.
First, a little bit of background on gerrymandering and why it’s interesting to me. I took AP US Government my junior year of high school, which was the 2010-2011 academic year. For those who may have forgotten (or blocked it out), that was the election cycle in which the Tea Party mounted a major populist movement and swung a lot of legislative seats, both at the federal and state levels, to Republican control. This was in conjunction with an effort called REDMAP, which sought to gain control of state legislatures in advance of the congressional redistritcing process following the 2010 Census in order to swing even more House of Representatives seats towards being “safe Republican” districts. Since then, gerrymandering, or the art, science, and magic of drawing political districts to favor or disfavor certain outcomes, has been fascinating to me as someone who works at the intersection of mathematics, computing, and social science.
This conference brings together people from all three domains, plus others, and I am having a ridiculous amount of fun at this thing. Like, to the point that I’m kind of in disbelief that I’m here for research purposes. I have met some of the most interesting people, as this conference has brought together a wide mix of people. I met local government members, physicists, computer scientists, mathematicians, software engineers, and activists, all interesting in this problem from their own perspective. It’s a lot of fun to be able to talk about how I think about the problem, how other people thing about the problem, and how to use tools and ideas from a range of disciplines to address gerrymandering.
I’ll give a short blurb about each talk. For more details, I’ll link my notes as well as videos if Tufts has made them available. If you have a problem with the notes, tell me and I’ll fix it. If you have a problem with the video, I’m not the person to complain to.
1. Talk 1: Moon Duchin on Situating Redistricting as a Problem in Multiple Disciplines.
Many people have thoughts and feelings about redistricting, and there are things to be learned from people with different backgrounds. From law, we need to think about how drawing district lines affect voting rights, from political science we can think about how districting affects representation and electoral outcomes, and from mathematics, we can think about the shapes of the districts. Link to Zach’s Notes | Link to Video of the Talk
2. Talk 2: Steve Ansolabehere on Partisan Gerrymandering
How do we detect gerrymandering? There are some simple tests like the distortion of representation relative to the population, efficiency metrics like wasted votes, and partisan bias, but none of these are smoking gun tools for detecting gerrymandering. We are also interested in how to actually make good maps. Given technology developments in recent years, crowdsourcing may be a powerful tool for developing good maps. Finally, we need to think about how to bridge the gap between scholarship and legal arguments. Judges are experts in interpreting the law, but not necessarily mathematics, sociology, or electoral politics, so we need to find the balance between tools and techniques which are comprehensive and rigorous, but also easy to explain and interpret in a courtroom setting. Link to Zach’s Notes | Link to Video of the Talk
3. Talk 3: Kristen Clarke on Voting Rights Litigation
(Editorial note: this was an amazing talk. If you have the opportunity to hear Kristen give a talk, go.)
Voting rights legislation does not exist in a vacuum. During the Civil Rights Era, legislation was passed to correct severe problems of disenfranchisement, particularly in the South. Recent events, such as the Shelby verdict in 2013 have dismantled some of these protections, and we need to be aware of how certain policies, such as voter ID laws, disproportionately affect minority populations. With respect to redistricting, it’s clear that there isn’t a cookie cutter approach that will magically solve every problem simultaneously. Any solution must involve careful and rigorous analysis of data, laws, voting patterns, and the motivations of those drawing the lines. Link to Zach’s Notes | Link to Video of the Talk
2. Talk 4: Moon Duchin and Max Engelstein Do Math
This ended up being more of a Q&A/brainstorming session, so the amount of “actual content” is relatively low. The takeaways are that the modern mathematical aspect of gerrymandering is relatively undeveloped, and techniques from group theory, geometry, topology, and graph theory may be useful. Link to Zach’s Notes
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Zach is a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Computer and Information Science. His research interests include game theory and mechanism design, machine learning, and computing for the social sciences.