Let's Fix This Country

The Justices Could If They Weren’t Technology Ignorant

Justices of the Supreme Court considering two cases (see companion article) wish there were some standard by which overly partisan gerrymandering could be struck down. Rather than petitioning the Court to hear one after another electoral district dispute, a standard would inhibit the states from drafting violations in the first place, knowing what would be the outcome.

What is dismaying is that the answer is hiding in plain sight, an answer that would do away with gerrymandering and partisan bias altogether, a solution that, inexcusably, none of the justices or lawyers for either party of these disputes seem to know anything about.

The answer lies in politically blind apportionment. Why couldn't that same software, guilty of drawing grotesque monstrosities such as the Maryland district (pictured)
Blue marks the challenged
Democratic district, part of which
lies along Chesapeake Bay, in black.

before the court, be reworked to produce agnostic district maps across the country that pay no attention to political parties?

In fact, there's already software that does precisely that. It's now years ago that we — knowing software — claimed that the same population mapping software that creates gerrymandered abominations could be reconfigured to instead create districts that connect contiguous neighborhoods while, in the process, entirely ignoring the or racial contents or voting habits of the populations being assigned to each district. People would simply be counted — analyzed in no other way. We'd said,

Begin by dividing a state into the nearest to equal size rectangles that irregular borders and waterways permit. Iteratively expand or condense each area's size and shape — with no regard to whatever political parties and ethnic groups predominate in the areas being manipulated — until each district's population equals the others in the state, and each district is compacted to tightly represent one location or region.

It's since been done. Appalled by the corruption of gerrymandering, a Massachusetts software engineer named Brian Olson pulled it off as we reported years ago. He created software — open source — that you could even run on your home computer, software that could apply the same uniform algorithms to the census maps of all 50 states. The wasteful and contentious lawsuits and court cases would vanish.

Since we first came upon him a few years back, he's gone on to make this something of a crusade, replete with TED talk.

North Carolina provides an example. Republicans took over both the governorship and the legislature in 2010 and set about drawing Gerrymandered maps so aligned against blacks that the Supreme Court threw them out, causing the delay of the state's primaries from March to June. Here is the original offending map of North Carolina, followed by Olson's reworked, neutral rendering:

"The Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations", says the same sentence in the Constitution that gives Congress control for setting the rules of elections. Congress could pass a law tomorrow to move to a system of proportional representation that would be rid of the whole disreputable practice of self-interested politicians drawing maps with the sole purpose of keeping themselves in office.

But for them, the country comes second. Self-interest blocks the path. And there is this side effect, which is so apparent: With re-election secured in districts Gerry-rigged in their favor, representatives have no need to compromise in their job of creating and passing new law.

4 Comments for “The Justices Could If They Weren’t Technology Ignorant”

  1. Your premise, i.e. only balance into contiguous communities of interest would potentially result in “packing” or “cracking” all over again. Ignoring political affiliation is fine, but the Voting Rights Act must be honored.

  2. Dennis

    The two illustrations in this article — the “Gerry-mandered” and the “post-Gerry-mandered — are identical. Someone duplicated the examples. Try again? I’d love to see the results of the contrast with Brian Olson’s work. Please re-send when it’s corrected? Thanks.

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