Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Modern, Internet-enabled gerrymandering

The Koch brothers live in Texas and interfere with elections in other states. Putin lives in Russia and interferes with elections in other nations. Are they legally and morally similar?

Charles and David Koch
Do you recognize these two men? They are Charles and David Koch, long-time supporters of libertarian, "tea party" political causes. In 2010 they supported Republican candidates in order to take control of state legislatures.

They focused on state legislatures because they have the power to redefine the boundaries of federal congressional districts. Once in power, the Republicans redrew district boundaries, packing Democrats into as few districts as possible and spreading the rest out across multiple districts.

Drawing districts to favor one party is called "gerrymandering," and it's nothing new. Patrick Henry tried to defeat James Madison in 1788 by drawing an anti-federalist district. Patrick Henry failed because he did not have good data, but in the Internet era, gerrymander technicians have all the data they need -- party registration, demographics, psychographics and personality traits. They also have computer programs like Maptitude that can use that data to draw up party-optimal district maps.

Maptitude heat map

As you see below, the strategy worked well for the Republicans. They control many state legislatures and outnumber the Democrats 238 to 193 in the House of Representatives. Gerrymandering has directly affected the House and the funding focused on state legislature races has had a spill-over effect on other statewide and federal elections.

State legislative seats by party

There are currently 4 vacant House seats and Democrat Jon Ossoff is running for one of them in a heavily Republican district in Georgia. Few politicians (from any party) would admit that gerrymandering is done for political reasons, but speaking of this close race, State Senator Fran Millar clearly acknowledged that it was in an unguarded moment, saying
“I’ll be very blunt: These lines were not drawn to get Hank Johnson’s protégé to be my representative. And you didn’t hear that. They were not drawn for that purpose, OK? They were not drawn for that purpose.”
The Democratic reaction to this strategy was to fight fire with fire by forming their own gerrymandering organization, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, headed by Eric Holder and supported by President Obama. But do we want elections to be influenced by gerrymandering? Is Democratic gerrymandering any better than Republican gerrymandering?

I think we need a neutral answer. Larry Lessig ran for president in 2016 on a single issue – citizen equality. His proposed Citizen Equality Act would promote equal right to vote, equal representation and citizen-funded elections. Our democracy is threatened by special-interest election financing -- might Lessig's proposal or something similar save it?

Lessig called for an attack on three fronts -- campaign finance reform, voting rights, and equal representation. We may see action on equal representation this year when the Supreme Court takes up the issue of partisan gerrymandering.

The Koch brothers live in Texas and interfere with elections in other states. Putin lives in Russia and interferes with elections in other nations. Are they legally and morally similar?


In the 2012 Wisconsin State Assembly election, Republican candidates received 48.6 percent of the popular vote but won 60.6 percent of the seats. The Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the constitutionality of the partisan gerrymandering responsible for that result.

A ruling against partisan gerrymandering would probably come too late to force redistricting for the 2020 election, but it would be significant going forward. In briefs to the Supreme Court, Wisconsin’s Republican legislative leaders estimated that if their redistricting is unconstitutional, so is that of about one-third of the other states.


The Supreme Court heard arguments today on whether a redistricting plan in the state of Wisconsin was unconstitutional. Gerrymandering dates back to the 18th century, but Internet data, GIS software and donors like the Koch brothers have improved and automated it.

Given his vote in a Texas redistricting case, Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch is a likely supporter of Wisconsin's right to gerrymander. I wonder how Merrick Garland would have voted.


A short message thread on Dave Farber's IP email list makes the point that the Internet could be used as a tool for objectively defining equitable congressional districts as well as for gerrymandering.

Ridgely Evers pointed out that algorithms could be devised to:
  • equalize population +/- X%
  • minimize perimeter
  • respect natural boundaries (rivers, for example)
  • maximize racial diversity
  • etc.
In a second post, George Sadowsky reported that in 1964 he had worked on a project to optimize congressional districts with Morris Davis, then the Director of the Yale Computer Center. Davis had been appointed a Special Master by the Federal Court in Connecticut to come up with a plan for Connecticut's congressional districts. They wrote two algorithms that yielded intuitively sensible partitionings of the state and the legislators used their results in negotiations.

I don't know how the Supreme Court will rule in this case -- Justice Kennedy is said to be the swing voter -- and it is hard to imagine the Republicans voluntarily give up their gerrymandered advantage. (I bet the Democrats would do the same -- politicians like their jobs). One way forward might be using Internet data and algorithms such as those suggested here to generate alternative, balanced partitions and publicize the results -- show the voters alternatives.