In his last State of the Union address, former President Barack Obama said we need “to change the system to reflect our better selves.” On the top of that list was ending gerrymandering. He said:
“We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.”
What Is Gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering is the process of drawing congressional districts. The problem is that there is always a chance of bias whenever humans are doing this. From a technological standpoint, the process is pretty straightforward. One software engineer, Brian Olson, wrote an algorithm to do it in his spare time. It draws districts based on Census blocks, so the lines are done by neighborhoods.
Compare our current Congressional district map versus the one done with Olson’s algorithm:
It’s a pretty big difference, right? The districts look much more compact and less snarled together. This algorithm, and others like it, prioritize compactness. This means that it tries to place the districts where the voters are closest together. One very obvious sign of gerrymandering is districts that bring a bunch of far-flung voters into one. This is done to favor one political party.
Some political scientists are skeptical of using compactness to draw districts. Some say that districts should be drawn based on “communities of interest.” However, that is a very subjective term. What interests are they referring to? How does one define that?
It’s a great idea, in theory; however, it can create all kinds of redistricting shenanigans in the long run. The main obstacles are legal ones. The Voter Rights Act says that race needs to be taken into account when drawing districts. However, clumping all of your minorities into one district can lessen their clout in other districts. Using an algorithm would be nice, but lawmakers are unlikely to give up that redistricting power.
Featured image via Twitter.