Saturday, April 22, 2017

How Data Can Save Democracy

One thing you have to admire about Gerrymandering, the dark art of drawing a Legislative Map that favors a Political Party: It's got some interesting slang.

Packing - Taking all the neighborhoods with voters who hate you and cramming them into one District. You know you will lose that District by a Landslide but have a leg up in all the other Districts.

Cracking - Breaking up a neighborhood that loathes you into chunks that you attach to other Districts where you are loved. Your opponents' votes get spread around and diluted.

Obviously these shenanigans warp and imperil Democracy. Various groups have sued over Gerrymandering Districts three dozen times in the past few decades, but they've always lost, because it's hard to prove how much a map is Gerrymandered. Usually Plaintiffs have resorted to Hypotheticals, but Courts don't like Hypotheticals. They want Hard Numbers.

Last year them got them. Eric McGhee. a Research Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, has figured out a new way to think about Gerrymandering, in Terms of Efficiency. With Packing and Cracking, the goal is to ensure you opponents' votes are wasted, so they do not contribute to Victory. A Packed District has artificially too many votes for one side. A Cracked District too few. McGhee figured out how to calculate the Efficiency Gap of an Election. Go District by District, counting how many votes the Winner got above 50%, anything higher was a waste. Then count the Loser's votes, because all those went down the tubes. Add up all the waste by Party Statewide, then take the difference between the two numbers as a percentage of the votes cast, that's the Efficiency Gap. The bigger the Gap, the more Gerrymandered the State. A Judge could verify the calculations with a pencil and paper.

The Efficiency Gap has already scored one Major victory. In November 2016, a Federal Court relied in part on the Formula to determine that Republicans had Gerrymandered

The Data Age is likely to spell trouble for Gerrymandering. This skulduggery relies on Geometry, Geography, and Demographic Tables, precisely the Domains where math nerds can give us clarity. Recently, Moon Duchin, a Mathematician at Tuffs University, realized her research in Geometry, figured out the average distance between points in various shapes, had a bearing on Compactness, the Legislative definition of what makes a Fair District. Inspired, Duchin formed the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group. Their program, which aims to train Mathematicians in Mapping and Civil Rights Law so they can be Expert Witnesses in Gerrymandering Cases, was so flooded with applications, she expected dozens and got over 1,100, that Duchin is expanding the size.

Technology could fight Gerrymandering in a lot of ways. The Public Mapping Project and Programmer Dave Bradlee have created Apps that let anyone Redistrict a State, to see just how easy or hard it is to Map fairly.

The Nations Political Maps will be redrawn in 2020, with new Census numbers. The Data of Democracy is up for grabs. Thank goodness the Mathematicians are watching.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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