On a late-spring evening in Boston, just as the sun was beginning to set, a group of mathematicians lingered over the remains of the dinner they had just shared. While some cleared plates from the table, others started transforming skewers and hunks of raw potato into wobbly geodesic forms. Justin Solomon, an assistant professor at M.I.T., lunged forward to keep his structure from collapsing. “That’s five years of Pixar right there,” he joked. (Solomon worked at the animation studio before moving to academia.) He and his collaborators were unwinding after a long day making preparations for a new program at Tufts University—a summer school at which mathematicians, along with data analysts, legal scholars, schoolteachers, and political scientists, will learn to use their expertise to combat gerrymandering.
The school, which began on Monday, is the brainchild of a young Tufts professor named Moon Duchin, who specializes in geometry. It has drawn participants from France, Israel, Japan, Singapore, and forty U.S. states. Some of Duchin’s students plan to train as expert witnesses, or to run for office. One mathematician enrolled out of a Christian sense of justice; another cited the day-to-day frustrations of living in a severely gerrymandered Florida district. Yet another applicant wrote, “Until very recently, I thought doing anything about this was a hopeless cause.” At the dinner, Duchin acknowledged that she was “kind of devastated by this election,” but both she and her colleagues were careful to point out that their venture is strictly nonpartisan. It was inspired by a simple question: What if there are well-researched areas of math that could simplify, or at least systematize, the fraught process of redistricting?
Gerrymandering has been a thorn in the side of the U.S. political system since before the very first Congress was elected. The Times editorial board recently called the issue “as old as it is corrosive to a representative democracy,” and last year, in a book titled “Ratf**ked,” the journalist David Daley wrote that “Democrats and Republicans alike have the sense that something in our politics is broken, that Congress is not responsive to the will of the people.” Although Americans of all political persuasions are able to agree on the problem, solutions, for now, are in short supply. In part, this is because even the most equitable districts are drawn according to subjective factors. A strangely shaped one might be a symptom of political bias, or it might merely reflect the local geography. Many states, moreover, explicitly call on their mapmakers to consider the needs of so-called communities of interest. As Michael Li, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me, “There are districts that were drawn to keep communities in the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains together, because people said, ‘Gosh, our community of interest is we get wildfires. And we really care about having somebody represent us to make sure we get better fire protection.’ ” Conversely, someone could make the case that a district giving Democrats and Republicans proportional representation is unfair, because it precludes candidates who represent Spanish speakers, or millennials, or bird-watchers.