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Math United States Politics

Mathematicians Study Effects of Gerrymandering On 2012 Election 413

HughPickens.com writes Gerrymandering is the practice of establishing a political advantage for a particular party by manipulating district boundaries to concentrate all your opponents' votes in a few districts while keeping your party's supporters as a majority in the remaining districts. For example, in North Carolina in 2012 Republicans ended up winning nine out of 13 congressional seats even though more North Carolinians voted for Democrats than Republicans statewide. Now Jessica Jones reports that researchers at Duke are studying the mathematical explanation for the discrepancy. Mathematicians Jonathan Mattingly and Christy Vaughn created a series of district maps using the same vote totals from 2012, but with different borders. Their work was governed by two principles of redistricting: a federal rule requires each district have roughly the same population and a state rule requires congressional districts to be compact. Using those principles as a guide, they created a mathematical algorithm to randomly redraw the boundaries of the state's 13 congressional districts. "We just used the actual vote counts from 2012 and just retabulated them under the different districtings," says Vaughn. "If someone voted for a particular candidate in the 2012 election and one of our redrawn maps assigned where they live to a new congressional district, we assumed that they would still vote for the same political party."

The results were startling. After re-running the election 100 times with a randomly drawn nonpartisan map each time, the average simulated election result was 7 or 8 U.S. House seats for the Democrats and 5 or 6 for Republicans. The maximum number of Republican seats that emerged from any of the simulations was eight. The actual outcome of the election — four Democratic representatives and nine Republicans – did not occur in any of the simulations. "If we really want our elections to reflect the will of the people, then I think we have to put in safeguards to protect our democracy so redistrictings don't end up so biased that they essentially fix the elections before they get started," says Mattingly. But North Carolina State Senator Bob Rucho is unimpressed. "I'm saying these maps aren't gerrymandered," says Rucho. "It was a matter of what the candidates actually was able to tell the voters and if the voters agreed with them. Why would you call that uncompetitive?"
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Mathematicians Study Effects of Gerrymandering On 2012 Election

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  • Did they take into account the Voting Rights Act provision that requires that minority voters be concentrated into districts that they have a good likelihood of winning? That alone has the effect of diluting minority strength elsewhere.

    • by mbone ( 558574 )

      Please quote that provision of the Voting Rights Act.

      • by KermodeBear ( 738243 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:32AM (#48478555) Homepage

        From Redrawing the Lines [redrawingthelines.org] (just a site I found with a quick Google search, no special reason to pick it other than it is what I found):

        Are states permitted to create new majority- minority districts?

        States are permitted and sometimes required to create new majority-minority districts under the Voting Rights Act to avoid diluting minority voting strength during redistricting. States with significant minority population growth over the course of the last decade, for instance, may need to create new majority-minority districts to ensure that redistricting plans comply with the requirements of Section 2 of the Act. Plans that dilute minority voting strength by failing to create feasible majority-minority districts may be quickly challenged following adoption. Since Section 2 litigation can be both costly and time- consuming, officials in many states set out to draw plans that fairly reflect minority voting strength at the beginning of the redistricting process. The need to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to avoid minority vote dilution can serve as a compelling justification for both preserving and creating new majority-minority districts, which helps protect these districts from constitutional attack.

        From Cornell University [cornell.edu], we have:

        Vote Dilution

        Section 2 of the VRA, codified at 42 U.S.C. 1973, prohibits drawing election districts in ways that improperly dilute minorities’ voting power. This prohibition applies to states, counties, cities, school districts, and any other governmental unit that holds elections. Two typical forms of vote dilution involve “cracking” a minority community between several election districts, and “submerging” minority communities in multi-member districts. Cracking occurs when election officials split a single minority community into enough different election districts that even if the community voted as a bloc, it could not influence any single districts’ elections. Alternately, election officials might dilute a minority community’s voting power by submerging it in a multi-member district with enough non-minority voters to routinely defeat the minority community’s chosen candidates. See Gerrymandering.

        Personally, I find it all to be a bunch of bullcrap. Have you seen those voting districts that are along, squiggly lines that wander all over the place? Give me big squares, randomly generated with approval from a set of judges or something like that, and get the god damned legislators out of the district drawing business. I don't care who it "hurts" or "helps", it is ridiculous to have some of the districts that we do.

        • Personally, I find it all to be a bunch of bullcrap. Have you seen those voting districts that are along, squiggly lines that wander all over the place? Give me big squares, randomly generated with approval from a set of judges or something like that, and get the god damned legislators out of the district drawing business.

          That's not the answer either. The answer is to tie them to geographical features which define "bioregions", sadly itself not a highly defined term. We can usually recognize 'em when we se 'em. All the people in a given bioregion have a natural confluence of interests, and arbitrary districting works against that.

        • by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @10:10AM (#48479019)

          Personally, I find it all to be a bunch of bullcrap. Have you seen those voting districts that are along, squiggly lines that wander all over the place?

          Yeah, and you know what? One of the most famous ones is in North Carolina [wikipedia.org], the site of this study.

          And guess who created it and why? Democrats did [state.mn.us], in order to secure a minority voting block big enough to elect a black person to Congress. Ever since, it's been one of the most litigated districts in the U.S.

          I'm always shocked at how many people don't realize that this is one of the primary LEGAL rationales for gerrymandering -- back in the 1980s and 1990s you even saw unholy alliances between minority leaders and conservative Republicans conspiring to create awkward districts in some states that would give each group what they wanted: the minorities got enough people together in a district to elect a minority to Congress, and the Republicans got to excise many of those annoying mostly Democratic minority voters from their districts.

          We are still living with that legacy in many states, and I frankly have found news coverage in recent years of gerrymandering to be lacking in discussion of this issue. It's not all just Republicans who have taken control of state legislatures -- we've also had a committed effort for quite a few decades to segregate voter districts in such a way that would allow more minorities in Congress.

          But of course that creates a problem, because it ends up disenfranching non-minority Democrats who get stuck in all the surrounding districts that can no longer elect a Democrat because a large portion of Democrats were deliberately removed from swing districts to create the minority-majority district.

          So the Democrats end up in a Catch-22. If they want to promote Congressional "diversity," they can create districts where minorities get elected, but they can end up screwing themselves over in the process because then all the surrounding districts become more Republican and make it more difficult for Democrats to actually achieve an overall Congressional majority.

          It's certainly not the only issue that has led to Republican majorities in Congress -- but it's one that's not often talked about, and it has had some significant effects.

          • by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @02:56PM (#48480627) Homepage Journal

            You ought to be shocked at the original purpose of those laws: Segregationist states in the former Confederacy were preventing blacks from registering to vote (which also kept them off juries), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] by methods including killing them if they tried to as late as 1963 vote https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] In 2000, the Florida Secretary of State eliminated enough black voters from the voting rolls, by falsely accusing them of being felons, to give the vote, and the presidency, to George W. Bush. http://www.gregpalast.com/flor... [gregpalast.com] So black voters are denied the right to vote, in violation of the constitution, even today. That's the purpose of the picture ID laws.

            Racism benefited the Democratic Party, while the Democratic Party was the party of racism. When the Democratic Party tried to reform itself, by giving constitutional rights to blacks, the Republican Party opportunistically took their place as the party of racism. Good for the Republicans, bad for America.

        • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @12:43PM (#48479813) Journal

          Give me big squares, randomly generated with approval from a set of judges or something like that

          California tried the non-paratisan judge trick. The leading party stacked the panel of judges to favor them.

    • by Zocalo ( 252965 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:26AM (#48478531) Homepage
      Not according to a comment by Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola University, in one of the linked articles [wunc.org] and acknowledged by Mattingly - he did say that incorporating it might be an option for further research though. This was apparently a "proof of concept" with deliberately simple rules, but given the interest and positive feedback it seems to be generating I'd like to see what happens if this could be adapated to include a more complete set of rules, not to mention be adapted for other countries where this is a problem.
    • Citation needed.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Ok well that settles it then!

  • When we had so many political consultants bidding for the contract to make those district maps?

  • by Teun ( 17872 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:19AM (#48478511) Homepage
    Start using a democratic system where every vote is equal, it's called Proportional Representation and works very well.

    It would also be the end of the two party systems.

    • by Chrisq ( 894406 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:21AM (#48478521)

      Start using a democratic system where every vote is equal, it's called Proportional Representation and works very well.

      It would also be the end of the two party systems.

      Personally I agree but the likelihood of it happening is very small. The chances of someone who has just won by the fisrt past the post system voting for a change is very low!

      • by Jason Levine ( 196982 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @09:12AM (#48478737) Homepage

        Start using a democratic system where every vote is equal, it's called Proportional Representation and works very well.

        It would also be the end of the two party systems.

        Personally I agree but the likelihood of it happening is very small. The chances of someone who has just won by the fisrt past the post system voting for a change is very low!

        Not just a politician who won first past the post, but both major parties. Changing the voting system would require one or both of the major parties supporting the change. However, both parties know that they gain power in the current system. Yes, the Democrats lost this round of elections, but wait a few years and the Republicans will be kicked out and replaced by Democrats - who will be kicked out a few years later in favor of Republicans. Repeat ad infinitum.

        Why would they support a change that would let some upstart third party gain enough power to unseat their power sharing arrangement? Or worse, allow a few third parties to arise and push Democrats and Republicans to the sidelines instead of sharing the spotlight?

    • first past the post isn't what's doing that, not having instant runoff style ballots is.

    • by Bruce66423 ( 1678196 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:36AM (#48478583)
      Whilst it is possible to see Germany as having had a stable governmental system despite PR, in most other countries it has caused substantial instability, to the extent that in many countries PR is tweeked to reduce its impact, e.g. Greece where the party with the most votes gets an extra tranche of MPs. By contrast Belgium's record of 18 months without a government as a result of PR should be a warning to us all.

      The great virtue of 'first past the post' is that it forces parties to appeal to a wider group than their obvious supporters; know nothing tea partiers mashed up with business advocates are lined up against a mixture of union placemen and minority activists. The process of coalesce has got to occur somewhere; the belief that it is best done in the spotlight of publicity of the floor of the legislature is somewhat unproven, at best. Certainly the collapse of both the Weimar Republic and the French 4th Republic are usually blamed on their use of PR; I remain to be convinced its the optimal solution.
      • by dkf ( 304284 )

        By contrast Belgium's record of 18 months without a government as a result of PR should be a warning to us all.

        Those who hope for a reduction of government meddling in their affairs will see it as a sign of true hope: the sky didn't fall in, despite the fact that the politicians couldn't agree on the most basic thing of all. Throwing them all out of office and only then starting work on the replacement would in fact be just fine...

      • by daveewart ( 66895 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:50AM (#48478649)

        The great virtue of 'first past the post' is that it forces parties to appeal to a wider group than their obvious supporters...

        I'm not sure that's necessarily true, but what FPTP does do is push everything towards a two-party state. This is why you get, effectively, extremists on both sides. Case in point: UK and USA. Minor parties are pushed out, moderate viewpoints are ignored. FPTP directly leads to "Us v. Them" contests.

        In fact, thinking more about your first point: I don't think it's quite true. FPTP encourages parties to talk negatively about their opponents rather than push their own positive points.

        • by Bruce66423 ( 1678196 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @11:21AM (#48479383)
          "This is why you get, effectively, extremists on both sides." They always exist, but in a FPTP system must vote for 'their' party come what may. The effect is to weaken the power of those extremists unless they represent a large enough group as to endanger one of the main party's chance of winning specific constituencies. This is what is happening atm with UKIP; they are perceived as endangering the Tories, so Cameron is being forced to play to their tune; the same is true of the National Front in France. By contrast Muslim voters in the UK have largely been forced to remain voting for the major parties, which is helpful in encouraging integration.

          The pathological case of PR taken to its logical extent is Switzerland where the same parties have formed the government in the same proportions since forever. The voters have almost no impact on government policy, except via referendums which often go against government policy, which is not a healthy way to run a country because it means your representatives are not being representative.
      • by Teun ( 17872 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:59AM (#48478685) Homepage
        Similar happens in The Netherlands, many months with lengthy negotiations to find a majority coalition.

        It's typically during these periods we have the most stable system :)

        The German tweak is a 5% minimum threshold to get into the parliament, only recognised minorities are exempted.

      • Sometimes governments need to collapse sooner rather than later. Less dogs will be under the porch.

      • by Trepidity ( 597 )

        The great virtue of 'first past the post' is that it forces parties to appeal to a wider group than their obvious supporters

        With the increase of uncompetitive districts in the U.S., I think this is no longer the case. The real decision-making in many districts happens in the caucuses or primaries (depending on the state), not in the general election. And in those cases it's typically a narrow slice of grassroots party activists, jockeying with party establishment insiders and major donors, who select the ca

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        > By contrast Belgium's record of 18 months without a government as a result of PR should be a warning to us all.

        Does not really matter in Belgium. During absence of federal government, we still got - for 10e6 people country - more than six parliaments [www.pfwb.be], 3 regional governments [belgium.be] and 3 linguistic community [wikipedia.org] having a lot of power. Power is split in so many parts that losing one does not matter.

        Not having a government during the peak of the economical crisis was actually good: nothing stupid done, debt stabili

      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 28, 2014 @09:27AM (#48478817)

        Anecdotal evidence? Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and more use proportional representation systems to some extent. Hardly unstable countries.

        If I could design a voting process, I would use the condorcet method and proportional representation.

      • by pjt33 ( 739471 )

        By contrast Belgium's record of 18 months without a government as a result of PR should be a warning to us all.

        A warning or an incentive?

    • by OzPeter ( 195038 )

      Start using a democratic system where every vote is equal, it's called Proportional Representation and works very well.

      It would also be the end of the two party systems.

      How preferential voting in Australia works .. in a nice, easy to read cartoon style where Dennis the Election Koala gives Ken the Voting Dingo an important lesson in civics! You Can’t ‘Waste Your Vote’! [chickennation.com]

    • Start using a democratic system where every vote is equal, it's called Proportional Representation and works very well.

      Thats fine for House elections, not so fine for Senate elections. The House represents the People but the Senate is supposed to represent the States. We should go back to appointing Senators rather than electing them.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:25AM (#48478529)

    Is subdistrict voting data available, or did they just assume a uniform voting pattern across each current district? In the latter case, what they're doing is resampling which tends to average things out, so their result isn't surprising and their conclusion is invalid.

  • by Bruce66423 ( 1678196 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:28AM (#48478537)
    Whilst the Republicans have played this game well in recent years, it's not that long ago that the Democrats were at it equally successfully, and in many states they still do it. Which is not to suggest that it's a good thing - but let's not get partisan about it.
  • In federal elections, state borders can be considered as districts causing the same kinds of distortions.

    It would take a pretty thorough rewrite of The Constitution of the USA to eliminate disproportionate weight of citizen votes.

     

    • by dkf ( 304284 )

      In federal elections, state borders can be considered as districts causing the same kinds of distortions.

      Maybe, but the effects are less severe because state lines are enormously more difficult to change for short-term political advantage. State-level gerrymandering requires sustained visible policies that affect migration and/or birth rates over decades.

  • by DCFC ( 933633 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:30AM (#48478549)

    He does politics for a living and has succeeded in a competitive domain, we should listen.

    The issue is that Gerrymandered seats are safer, the elected official *is* communicating with voters, but the electorate he must worry most about is his own party in the primaries.

    If you have a seat that is safe for one party then you get elected by activists of that party, not voters in general which leads to people getting elected from both parties who would never win on their own merits if they had to "communicate" with a more representative portion of the electorate.

    They don't get re-elected by doing a good job, they get it by convincing activist members of their own party that they "represented our values".

    They don't get fired by screwing up, but because some faction of their own party, be it unions, Tea party, some religious or ethnic group don't like them or because they sleep with someone that causes a fuss.

    So the surprise is not that elected official are less than the best, the surprise is that they know such advanced maths as "some numbers are bigger than others" and that grasp foreign politics well enough to know that the Queen of England isn't a New York bar.

    • Exactly. "safe" districts shift the major contest from each side fighting over the middle to the "safe" side fighting with itself over who can appeal to more zealots.

  • 1 - Lower the quality of math teaching and the math requirements to advance through the educational system.
    2 - Wait about twenty years.
    3 - Rig the elections in a non absolutely obvious way.

    • by plover ( 150551 )

      You don't have to lower the math standards any, you just have to fail to raise them for the next 20 years. Even then it won't matter, because so many people are so bad at statistics and estimating, even when they know better.

  • by Shadow of Eternity ( 795165 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:37AM (#48478585)

    Actually if anything they're more serious than the external ones. In an ordinary district the candidates from each major party have to compete for a majority of voters. In a gerrymandered "safe" district the other side is never going to win in the first place so the real contest isn't between each side but rather during the primary to see who's can be more extreme.

  • by retroworks ( 652802 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:38AM (#48478591) Homepage Journal
    Besides the effect on lawmaking (or failure to pass laws under gridlock), gerrymandering gives people on both sides of issues a sense of majority. "I won in a landslide, I must be right", combined with polarized news programming, has been demonstrated to make people dumber. Harvard Business Review has an interesting article this week on opinion reinforcement and groupthink this week [ https://hbr.org/2014/11/making... [hbr.org] ], which compares focus groups from liberal Boulder CO USA and conservative Colorado Springs USA. The researchers documented the negative effects of grouping like-minded people in political discussions. I think gerrymandering has the same effect on political intelligence. Their own conservatism or liberalism appears validated by landslide elections in their districts.
  • by the-matt-mobile ( 621817 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @08:50AM (#48478643)
    Looks like this study makes the same faulty assumption that the news media does - that a voter can be counted on only to vote for the candidate of their preferred party. Those other candidates they magically transferred votes for didn't actually run in those districts, so saying one democrat is the same as another and one republican is the same as another - a fashionable and fun cynical fiction for sure - is just not true.
  • "If we really want our elections to reflect the will of the people,"

    What "people", though?

    Let me be absolutely clear: gerrymandering is bullshit - I'm *all* in favor of algorithmically-determined districts, such that they conform to:
    - must have the same population
    - must be contiguous ...that's great, as far as it goes, and in reading the article, that seems to be where they stopped. I'd add one further, complicating factor:
    - they have to recognize communities

    It's easy enough to parcel a state into clumps o

    • Re:Except... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by readin ( 838620 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @09:12AM (#48478739)
      "recognizing communities" is the heart of gerrymandering. Any gerrymandering algorithm should be forbidden from doing so.
      • by Entrope ( 68843 )

        District-drawing very much should recognize communities. If you can avoid it, it does not make sense to have districts that are half suburban and half agricultural, or half high-end gentrified downtown and half working-class and poor. Unfortunately, as you point out, the judgment involved does make it easier to slip in some degree of gerrymandering.

  • by Rick Zeman ( 15628 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @09:02AM (#48478699)

    ...as TFA seems to imply. In the People's Republic of Maryland, the Democrats managed to gerrymander wacko-conservative Western MD into laughably liberal Montgomery County [wikipedia.org] in an effort to dilute the conservative's strength.

    All politicians suck.

    • The biggest problem is:
      Those politicians who are not willing to bend the rules through gerrymandering ultimately lose to those who do. It's like Darwinist evolution pressure in favor of corrupt politicians.
  • by readin ( 838620 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @09:11AM (#48478733)
    Each state should create a competitive contract and to build a re-districting computer program. The requirements for the program should include

    * The only data fed to the program is geographic markers the will provide convenient district borders (railroad lines, roads, rivers, county and city borders, etc.) and the number of people within each section. No other demographic data (age, race, previous voting patterns, income, etc.) will be input into the program
    * the program will be completed 2 years before the redistricting and be open source so that anyone can inspect it and run it and get the same result
    * the program will take a random seed as input and will generate different results based on that seed.

    The geographic data will also be made public 2 years in advance of the redistricting

    When the census data comes out it will be published as well.

    On the big day they'll hold a lotto-type drawing to select the random seed. At that point anyone - researchers, journalists, some kid in his basement - can run the program and know the result before it is even published by the government. If the result isn't what everyone else expects we'll know there was funny business.


    The program will be fair because the kind of data that allows gerrymandering simply won't be permitted as input. Any sneaky attempts to use something like population density as a proxy will be something anyone can find and complain about in the open source code. Neither party will be able look at the results ahead of time, see that by chance it gives a slight advantage to their opponents, and scuttle the process because the outcome won't be available until the random seed is drawn.
  • by zraider ( 759486 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @09:15AM (#48478747) Homepage
    Meanwhile, some other academics tried something similar and came up with a different result, which they describe as "unintentional gerrymandering". Essentially, Democrats dominate in urban areas and Republicans in rural areas, in a way that ends up inefficiently concentrating Democratic votes.

    See: http://www-personal.umich.edu/... [umich.edu]
  • I'm sure I'm being incredibly naive, but what's wrong with a plain old popular vote? I don't know why there's always this obsession with districts, electoral colleges, all of that bollocks. If you get the most votes you get the job, why must that be complicated? I'm not trying to be facetious here I'm honestly curious.

  • Is why I don't vote.
    Now if we had a system based on Single Transferable Vote https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]
    And districts made by Shortest splitline Algorithm https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

    Then i would.

  • by kenh ( 9056 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @01:29PM (#48480067) Homepage Journal

    Enjoy - from The Washington Post [washingtonpost.com]

    • by SETY ( 46845 )

      Mod Up. This is the #1 problem in the USA. Fix this and many, many other problems with government will magically disappear.

  • by Baldrson ( 78598 ) * on Friday November 28, 2014 @03:30PM (#48480809) Homepage Journal

    Sortocracy is sorting proponents of social theories into governments that test them. It is the only political system that allows people to escape bad governance: People can vote with their feet.

    Any attempt to "reform the political process" is doomed for the reason pointed out by Machiavellli:

    It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things; for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order; this lukewarmness arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not truly believe in anything new until they actually have experience of it.

    Any system that does not allow people to experience a new order of things by voluntary assortation is doomed to the political equivalent of theocracy: Imposing a single social theory on unwilling human experimental subjects. You must allow for consent to experimental treatment of human subjects and you must allow for control groups to evidence causality.

    There is going to be a revolution.

  • by Celarent Darii ( 1561999 ) on Friday November 28, 2014 @04:10PM (#48481053)

    In Soviet America, voters don't chose their representatives, rather the representatives choose their voters.

    Stalin is reported to have said that he takes little account of who votes, but rather it is he who counts the votes that matters. Politics in American have done him proud... it matters not who votes, but where you vote that counts. One vote in a swing state is worth thousands of votes in the so called "safe states". In fact with most districts there isn't even a meaningful contest.

    Tyranny by definition is rule without mandate. When less than 50% of the people vote, and of them not all the votes have equal political value, then I think it is safe to state that the USA has perhaps crossed the line into tyranny.

    Yet some tyrannies can be quite nice to live in.

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