Why It’s More Complicated than Most People Think
On Thursday, February 8, 2018, LWVGH presented an informative discussion, lead by Tufts University Professor Mira Bernstein about gerrymandering, a practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries. According to Wikipedia, two principal tactics are used in gerrymandering: “cracking” (i.e. diluting the voting power of the opposing party’s supporters across many districts) and “packing” (concentrating the opposing party’s voting power in one district to reduce their voting power in other districts). This practice, which is used by both Republicans and Democrats is unfair to all voters, even those with questionable judgment.
Most of us have been painfully aware of this happening in the last election.
According to https://www.smithsonianmag.com/, “Gerrymandering, the politicians’ practice of drawing district lines to favor their party and expand their power, is nearly as old as the republic itself. Today, we see it in Ohio’s ‘Lake Erie Monster‘ and Pennsylvania’s ‘Goofy Kicking Donald Duck.‘”
Elbridge Gerry, the governor who signed the bill creating the misshapen Massachusetts district, was a Founding Father: signer of the Declaration of Independence, reluctant framer of the Constitution, congressman, diplomat, and the fifth vice-president. Well-known in his day, Gerry was a wild-eyed eccentric and an awkward speaker, a trusted confidant of John Adams and a deep (if peculiar) thinker. He could also be a dyspeptic hothead—a trait that got the better of him when he signed the infamous redistricting bill.
[In 1812] the Democratic-Republicans, who controlled the legislature, redrew the state’s Senate districts to benefit their party. Until then, senatorial districts had followed county boundaries. The new Senate map was so filled with unnatural shapes, Federalists denounced them as “carvings and manglings.”
The word “gerrymander” was coined at a Boston dinner party hosted by a prominent Federalist in March 1812, according to an 1892 article by historian John Ward Dean. As talk turned to the hated redistricting bill, illustrator Elkanah Tisdale drew a picture map of the district as if it were a monster, with claws and a snake-like head on its long neck. It looked like a salamander, another dinner guest noted. No, a “Gerry-mander,” offered poet Richard Alsop, who often collaborated with Tisdale. (An alternate origin story, which Dean found less credible, credited painter Gilbert Stuart, famed portraitist of George Washington, with drawing the monster on a visit to a newspaper office.)
Professor Mira Bernstein is a teacher and researcher at Tufts University and is a member of the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group. She received her Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard University in 1999, but since 2008 her work has focused on using mathematics to solve social problems – from exploring the effects of extending health insurance to low-income populations to combating slavery and forced labor throughout the world. Ms. Bernstein is also very active in mathematics education. She loves getting her students to see that mathematics – far from being scary and boring – is powerful, fascinating, and highly relevant to their lives.
Professor Bernstein elaborated on the two principals of gerrymandering (as described above) and said that even under the best circumstances it is difficult to determine what is a “fair” way of dividing voting districts. Through various examples, she showed that even what would seem to most of us as fair redistricting is really not so fair. The group that she is part of is focusing on the shapes of districts rather than statistics to determine whether a district has biased boundaries. “The focus is on achieving a systematic and fair understanding of geometric issues,” says Justin Solomon, a member of the group, “related to gerrymandering as well as how mathematical structures affect how to design fair districting plans.”
To view a video of Professor Bernstein’s presentation recorded at the Wellesley League meeting last September, please go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAjuKkRY-bI.
As most people who pay attention to these kind of things know, SCOTUS has agreed to hear a couple of cases dealing with gerrymandering:
For years the U.S. Supreme Court has been unwilling to tackle partisan gerrymandering. That left state political parties free to redraw voting maps in egregious ways using ever more powerful software. But the high court may finally be ready to crack down on extreme cases of gerrymandering. It’s taking up two cases this term, including the one in Wisconsin, where Democrats are challenging the Republican-drawn map used to elect the state assembly. The other, Benisek v. Lamone, which it will hear this spring, concerns a Democrat-drawn congressional district in Maryland.