Drawing voting district lines to benefit a particular political party, or gerrymandering, threatens the American democratic process. As explained by Michael Pollack, local political activist and executive director of March on Harrisburg, gerrymandering “creates geographically bizarre districts with single-party monopolies; it rejects competitive elections; and it encourages hyper-partisanship and well-funded fringe candidates.”
Concerned about the impact of gerrymandering on the electoral process, a group of mathematicians in Boston, called the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group (MGGG), has been studying redistricting from a geometric and computational perspective. Supported by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, MGGG is committed to training mathematicians on the quantitative aspects of redistricting, enabling them to serve as expert witnesses and consultants on this issue. The group also collaborates with experts in other fields and endeavors to educate the public about the dangers of gerrymandering.
According to the group’s website, one of MGGG’s goals is “to build a diverse community of mathematically inclined people around the country and give them the knowledge and the tools to hold map-drawers accountable when 2020 comes around.” 2020 is the year of the next U.S. Census, and in most states, redistricting takes place after the census is completed.
Over the course of the coming year, as part of its educational mission, MGGG is sponsoring a series of workshops around the country, called “Geometry of Redistricting.” Covering topics in math, law and civil rights, each workshop begins with free public programming, and ends with specialized training for participants selected in advance through an application process. The public programs from the August workshop, which was held at Tufts, were videotaped and uploaded to YouTube, creating an excellent resource on gerrymandering and redistricting.
For example, Ellen Katz, the Ralph W. Aigler Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, presented a program called “Race and Redistricting: The Legal Framework.” During her presentation, Professor Katz — an expert in the areas of election law, civil rights and equal protection — reviewed the constitutional and statutory history of the use of race in redistricting.
In “Political Gerrymandering: A Legal and Conceptual Primer,” Guy-Uriel Charles, the Charles S. Rhyne Professor of Law and senior associate dean for faculty and research at Duke University School of Law, provided insight into the Supreme Court’s legal rationale in cases on political and racial gerrymandering. Professor Charles is the founding director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics.
Representing the more technical and computational side of the workshop was, among others, Justin Solomon, a member of the MGGG team and assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where he heads the Geometric Data Processing Group. Before launching into the details of his presentation, called “Geometry of Data: Algorithmic Approaches to Gerrymandering,” Professor Solomon made a fundamental point when he said, “Really these people are solving a problem that is largely geometric. … [A]t the end of the day, we have to draw shapes on a map.”
The MGGG workshop made clear that gerrymandering is a problem whose solution depends on the cooperation of people with different ares of expertise. As Professor Charles said in explaining why he participated in the workshop:
I believe in the idea of bringing together different types of interdisciplinary folks to think about one of the fundamental problems of American democracy, which is how to organize our electoral structures and how to better structure our process of representation.