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Jun
2014
6

Gerrymandering? There’s an App For That.

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In his free time, a software engineer in Massachusetts may have remedied one of the most endemic problems of our political system: gerrymandering.  

By creating a program that would break up districts equally after each census using computers (“Science? Oh no!” –GOP), the new approach would take the power out of the hands of the party in control at the beginning of each decade and make for a more representative and independent government.  

Via the Washington Post:

Brian Olson is a software engineer in Massachusetts who wrote a program to draw “optimally compact” equal-population congressional districts in each state, based on 2010 census data. Olson’s algorithm draws districts that respect the boundaries of census blocks, which are the smallest geographic units used by the Census Bureau. This ensures that the district boundaries reflect actual neighborhoods and don’t, say, cut an arbitrary line through somebody’s house.

Above, maps show the current system versus Olson’s using Pennsylvania as the example. The Washington Post provides maps of other states in their post.

As writer Christopher Ingraham notes, Olson’s model rejects the current idea of “communities of interest,” instead favoring compactness.  However, the case can be made for and against “communities of interest” and how they affect the political clout of certain constituencies, Igraham says:

As Jonathan Bernstein wrote last year, a community of interest could be defined based on rural/urban divides, shared cultural background, economic interest, ethnic background, demographic similarity, political boundaries, geographic boundaries and on and on.

And therein lies the problem: You can define a “community of interest” pretty much however you want. If you’re a politician in search of a fig leaf justification for putting voters from disparate corners of the state into the same congressional district, you can always find one. Communities of interest are a great ideal, but in practice they’re so fuzzy that they open the door to all manner of redistricting shenanigans, as we’ve seen.

A word, also, about the Voting Rights Act. In some instances, the act requires that states draw majority-minority districts. The idea to ensure that minority voters get appropriate representation in Congress, particularly in areas where they’ve historically been discriminated against.

But here’s the thing: Packing a state’s minority voters into a small number of districts has the effect of diminishing their clout everywhere else. What you get, in effect, is district-level segregation: minority districts for minority voters.

North Carolina’s 12th district, the country’s most gerrymandered, is a perfect example of this. The district was originally drawn by Democrats. But when the GOP redrew the state in 2010, they found it convenient to leave the 12th mostly untouched. Concentrating African American voters here gave them more leeway to finagle the surrounding districts to their liking.

Whether or not Olson’s program is the election-curing holy grail is up for debate. But one thing is certain: A modern take on tackling an ingrained flaw of our democracy, one which is only worsening with time, is needed.  

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