How you and your kids can use the maths to defeat gerrymandering and protect democracy
“As a mapmaker, I can have more impact on an election than a campaign. More of an impact than a candidate. When, I as a mapmaker, have more of an impact on an election than the voters, the system is out of whack.”
Republican redistricting consultant following 1990 Census
I don’t think we spend enough time having kids explore the whole gerrymandering thing as part of our government / civics engagement instruction. David is right. And I don’t think enough of us understand the power that redistricting can have on the democractic process.
Quick primer. Gerrymandering is the legislative act of creating voting maps that favor your particular political party. And according to a recent Wired article, it usually involves one of two different tools:
- Packing is when you take all the voters who hate you and cram them into one congressional district. This means that you will get blown out in that district but you’ll have a better chance of winning the others.
- The reverse of that is cracking. You take an area that is clearly never going to love you or your party’s candidates and break it into chunks and attach those chunks to districts where you hold a clear majority of voters. The haters get so spread out that their impact has no bearing on the election. (Kansas tried this a few years ago when it attempted to split the city of Lawrence between two larger districts. FYI – Lawrence is an island of University of Kansas blue in a state sea of red.)
Redrawing congressional voting districts to ensure that a specific political party retains or gains an unfair advantage during an election is a great way to look democratic while actually screwing over huge numbers of voters. Parties and state legislators have been doing it for years.
This sort of funny business is obviously not good for a political system that prides itself on equality, fairness and one person / one vote. The problem? It’s relatively easy to do and much more difficult to prove and reverse.
Multiple groups have gone to court to try and overturn gerrymandered districts over the years. But they’ve always lost . . . because it’s hard to prove how much a map has been gerrymandered.
The Wired article says that’s changing:
The data age is likely to spell trouble for gerrymandering. This skulduggery relies on geometry, geography, and demographic tables, precisely the domains where math nerds can give us clarity.
Using something called the “efficiency gap,” mathematicians are starting to determine the level of gerrymandering in a state, providing the courts empirical data that can protect voter rights and prevent political parties from gaining an unfair – and undemocratic – advantage.
And the cool thing is that these mathematicians are now crowdsourcing this. I mean, seriously, how cool is that?
Wired highlights Moon Duchin, a mathematician at Tufts University, who is using her research in geometry to connect with the concept of “compactness,” the legislative definition of what makes a fair district. Duchin created the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group with the hope of training others to be expert witnesses in gerrymandering legal cases.
And guess what? High school teachers are allowed to get trained. Online. During the summer. Don’t want to jump off that bridge yet? You can still access some of Duchin’s handy resources:
- Stay current with the very latest court decisions on redistricting.
- The ACLU’s pamphlet Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Redistricting (But Were Afraid to Ask!), updated 2010— this is a wonderful place to learn about some of the basic terms and notions.
- The Washington Post has a fantastic interactive feature with compactness scores for all US Congressional Districts.
- The geospatial application company Azavea has published a white paper on redistricting. (A good general introduction to different compactness measures but slightly mathematically buggy.)
- They have a Dropbox of shared articles and resources. Get access to the Dropbox by contacting them at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The article also mentions a guy named Eric McGhee from the Public Policy Institute of California. McGhee has developed something he calls the Public Mapping Project:
The drawing of electoral districts is among the least transparent processes in democratic governance. All too often, redistricting authorities maintain their power by obstructing public participation. The resulting districts embody the goals of politicians to the detriment of the representational interests of communities and the public at large.
We seek to change this power balance by making it possible for the public to draw the boundaries of their communities and to generate redistricting plans for their state and localities – through their web-browsers.
So stop what you’re doing and think for a few seconds.
How can we use these and other resources to help students understand the democratic process? Make sense of politics? The court system? And develop a sense of civic engagement in our kids? Wouldn’t be cool to have our kids begin to explore the process of using census data and math and charts and graphs and civics and voter registrations and political parties and state governments to actually take part in this sort of process?
What if our kids became the “expert” witnesses? We develop a civic engagement project that has kids create legally correct congressional districts that are both “efficient” and “compact.” Or we have them prepare expert witness testimony that can be used in classroom-based court cases taken from real life. Or . . .
Okay. I will admit. I still am not sure what this might look like. But we’re smart. We can figure something out, right?
If nothing else, we’ve got some handy tools for our government and civics instructional designs.
And if you’re really just not ready to go full throttle on this, start next semester off with The Redistricting Game, an online version of the gerrymandering concept that easy and fun to play. Maybe play it this last few weeks of school. You’ll find five different “missions” to simulate and some basic background info.
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Glenn is a curriculum and integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Work with Me page.