After months of meetings and many rounds of discussion, Ohio legislators have finally reached an elusive compromise on the thorny subject of congressional gerrymandering. Pending approval from Ohio voters on the May ballot, Ohio’s congressional redistricting process will undergo a significant revision designed, among other things, to keep districts compact, limit splits of counties and cities, and to meaningfully involve the minority political party in the redistricting process. When I make the four-mile trip each morning from my house to my office at Baldwin Wallace University, I cross from Ohio’s 16th congressional district into the 9th district. This journey serves as a daily reminder that the redistricting process constitutes a formidable geometry problem.
As a math professor, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about geometry problems; as our lawmakers proceed, it will be crucial for them to be careful about exactly which geometry problem they are attempting to solve.
Many use the word “gerrymandered” to refer simply to districts with strange-looking shapes. However, a bizarrely shaped district isn’t necessarily a problem. For example, some strangely shaped districts are forced by our nation’s natural borders and landscapes. In other cases, odd-looking shapes are used to keep communities together. A truly gerrymandered map is one in which districts have been drawn in a particular way to convey a strong systemic advantage to one political party by wasting the votes of the other party. This is the well-documented reality of the current Ohio district lines.