The Supreme Court has long kept a distance from arguments over gerrymandering, that most American practice of redrawing the lines of legislative districts in order to tip elections toward the party in power. But early next month, the justices will hear a challenge to the 2011 redrawing of Wisconsin’s state legislative map by Republican lawmakers — a demonstration of how increasingly powerful technology allows partisan mapmakers to distort representation with ever-greater precision. Using computer modeling, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature produced districts so unbalanced that, in 2012, Republicans won a supermajority in the state assembly even after losing the popular vote. And the state GOP continued to entrench that hold in 2014 and 2016, even after winning only slim majorities of the vote.
National: Congressional redistricting less contentious when resolved using computer algorithm | phys.org
Concerns that the process of U.S. congressional redistricting may be politically biased have fueled many debates, but a team of University of Illinois computer scientists and engineers has developed a new computer algorithm that may make the task easier for state legislatures and fairer for their constituents. “United States congressional district maps are redrawn every 10 years in response to national census data, and this process empowers every state legislature to decide how they will carve up each of their congressional districts,” said Illinois professor of computer science Sheldon H. Jacobson. “One of the problems is that this can lead to oddly shaped and dispersed districts that favor one political agenda over another.” The researchers’ study, performed in collaboration with Douglas M. King, a lecturer of industrial and enterprise systems engineering, proposes a new, geographically based and data-driven algorithm that allows a user to specify the goal that guides the creation of the districts, then creates the districts computationally while enforcing other requirements, such as each district being a contiguous area. Their algorithm speeds up computations by gleaning insight from the geography of the state.
North Carolina: Two Republicans say they accidentally asked the Supreme Court to end gerrymandering | News & Observer
Two of the three North Carolina lawmakers who had joined with prominent national politicians to oppose gerrymandering have now backtracked, saying they didn’t mean to add their names on an anti-gerrymandering letter sent to the Supreme Court. Rep. Mark Meadows and Rep. Walter Jones, both Republicans, signed on to the legal brief along with Democratic Rep. David Price. Meadows blamed an “error” and Jones blamed “miscommunication” for their participation. Meadows also made a point to say he supports the N.C. General Assembly, which is in charge of drawing the state’s lines for its members of Congress. That means Price is now the only one of North Carolina’s 15 members of Congress who remains involved in the anti-gerrymandering efforts at the Supreme Court. The Chapel Hill lawmaker’s office confirmed Friday that he didn’t sign his name accidentally.
A long list of prominent Republicans is urging the Supreme Court to find that extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional, saying the practice of drawing electoral lines to benefit one party or another is detrimental to democracy. It puts those Republicans on opposing sides from groups such as the Republican National Committee and the party’s congressional campaign committee, which are supporting Wisconsin’s GOP-led legislature in a major high court case to be heard next month. A lower court found lawmakers drew maps that so favored Republican candidates that they violated the constitutional right of equal protection.
Gerrymandering is the term used in the United States to describe the intentional manipulation of district boundaries to discriminate against a group of voters on the basis of their politics or race. The term dates to 1812 when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a redistricting plan that included a district that many thought looked like a salamander, leading opponents to nickname the district after him. But while the term has become a synonym for redistricting abuses, it actually covers a wide variety of sins, not all of which are related. For example, one form of gerrymandering involves making a district super safe for an incumbent. Likewise, sometimes districts are drawn so a powerful lawmaker’s brother-in-law or another favored candidate can successfully run for office. These types of gerrymanders – which often occur through bipartisan collusion between political parties –can be harmful to democracy by pre-determining outcomes and depriving voters of a meaningful choice. But Gill v. Whitford involves another variant of political gerrymandering that is even more pernicious.
We applaud the Colorado’s League of Women Voters for its effort to curtail gerrymandering ahead of the 2020 census, and wish the non-partisan group luck in its endeavor. While we will withhold judgment of the organization’s proposal until we see the final language and whether it qualifies for the ballot this year, we’re encouraged that someone is stepping up to make this system of drawing districts more fair to voters of all political views. For too long the redistricting of Colorado’s congressional districts and state legislative districts have fallen victim to the underhanded strategies of both Republicans and Democrats who are trying to get the upper hand in the next decade’s elections.
Breaking ranks with many of their fellow Republicans, a group of prominent politicians filed briefs on Tuesday urging the Supreme Court to rule that extreme political gerrymandering — the drawing of voting districts to give lopsided advantages to the party in power — violates the Constitution. The briefs were signed by Republicans including Senator John McCain of Arizona; Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio; Bob Dole, the former Republican Senate leader from Kansas and the party’s 1996 presidential nominee; the former senators John C. Danforth of Missouri, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming; and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former governor of California. “Partisan gerrymandering has become a tool for powerful interests to distort the democratic process,” reads a brief filed by Mr. McCain and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case, Gill v. Whitford, No. 16-1161, on Oct. 3.
Colorado: Group files to put redistricting reform on 2018 ballot in a bid to end gerrymandering | The Denver Post
A bipartisan coalition backed by two former governors on Wednesday took the first step toward putting redistricting reform on the 2018 ballot, filing three initiatives that the group hopes will lead to more competitive elections in Colorado. The three ballot initiatives seek to dilute the influence of the two major political parties in the state’s redistricting process by putting more unaffiliated voters on the commissions tasked with drawing the lines for state legislative and congressional districts. Led by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Colorado and former state Rep. Kathleen Curry, a political independent, the effort has some high-profile backers in both parties.
North Carolina: Lawmakers asked the public to comment on political maps. Here’s the response they got. | News & Observer
When legislators were in the middle of debating changes to North Carolina House and Senate districts last month, they were legally required to seek public input. But they don’t appear to have listened too intently. Of the more than 4,300 written comments that legislators received on redistricting, just 38 were positive, according to Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat, who said he got the data from General Assembly staff. “That means 99.2 percent of the comments were opposed to precisely what the redistricting committee went ahead and did anyway — which was to draw the maps to favor one party,” Jackson wrote in a post on the Charlotte Agenda news website.
A North Carolina state senate district recently sprouted a mysterious new appendage that just happens to encompass a lawmaker’s second home. The extension, and the bipartisan approval it won in the GOP-led state legislature, is a classic example of the backroom dealing that happens when lawmakers are allowed to draw their own legislative boundaries. A little background: North Carolina Republicans redrew all of the state’s legislative maps in 2011, following the 2010 Census. Democrats immediately cried foul, contending that the maps were drawn with the express purpose of solidifying Republicans’ hold on power in the state.
Wisconsin voter Helen Harris says she hopes an upcoming Supreme Court case will revolutionize the way state and county legislators draw district maps and bring an end to a political practice she believes has gone amok. At issue is partisan gerrymandering — or the length to which legislators go when they manipulate district lines for partisan advantage.
Harris, a plaintiff in the case, has studied tortured district maps, she’s pored over legal briefs replete with raw data and mathematical calculations and she believes it all boils down to one thing: an individual’s right to vote. “I feel like I’m no longer represented,” she said in an interview.
Editorials: Get these math nerds fitted for heroes’ capes in Texas voting rights fight | Dallas Morning News
Here’s a genius idea: Mathematicians are putting their heads together to untangle the knotty national gerrymandering mess. A math professor at Boston-area Tufts University, Moon Duchin, deserves a big share of the credit for organizing this big-brain powered movement. She’s orchestrating workshops at campuses across America to devise and disseminate cutting-edge numbers tools to help courts identify voting maps that are drawn unfairly. Drawing amoeba-shaped districts in order to clump voters from disparate areas together to benefit a particular party or demographic has so polarized Congress that most elected officials fear a primary challenge more than losing in a general election. This eviscerates any incentive to compromise or to work on bipartisan solutions. Redistricting reform is designed to make lawmakers accountable to real people than to the extremes of each party. Simply put, gerrymandering is the scourge of American politics.
Three days after Donald Trump’s election, Katie Fahey, a 28-year-old Michigander who works for a recycling nonprofit, sent a message into the Facebook ether, not knowing what might come of it. “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan,” she wrote. “If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.” To her surprise, the message got shared, and shared, and shared some more. Pretty soon the Facebook post had turned into a Facebook group with a couple hundred supporters of all political persuasions from all over the state—lawyers and veterinarians, teachers and doctors, stay-at-home parents and accountants and mailmen. Google Docs and conference calls ensued, followed by fundraising and the formation of leadership committees. By early December, an ambitious statewide campaign to end gerrymandering in Michigan had emerged, with Fahey at its helm.
North Carolina: ‘What’s the disincentive?’ to gerrymander over and over, asks judge | News & Observer
While the North Carolina General Assembly considered new maps for electing its members in 2018, a panel of federal judges were in a courtroom less than half a mile away weighing the next steps for two of at least five lawsuits that have challenged redistricting plans from the past decade. Three judges rejected a request to delay trials in two lawsuits filed last year by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters accusing lawmakers of using blatant partisan gerrymandering in 2016 to draw the districts that elect members of Congress. Those maps were drawn to correct unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.
The drive to improve the way Wisconsin redraws its district maps is rapidly gaining speed. Using advanced mathematical modeling, Republicans have gerrymandered the state’s current political map so that 40 percent of its districts do not have competitive elections. The winners have already been chosen by the way that boundaries were drawn. In the first eight months of this year, a total of 17 counties in Wisconsin have endorsed the Iowa Model, and 7 counties endorsed it in previous years, so 24 counties are now on board. Three counties – Kenosha, La Crosse, and Monroe — have passed resolutions saying they are in favor of nonpartisan redistricting in just the past few weeks.
At 6’5″, Aaron Dennis towers over the whiteboard beside him. Blue marker in hand, the 22-year-old hunches slightly to jot down suggestions being shouted by a group of people deep into a brainstorming session. Dressed mostly in nerdy T-shirts (one reads Science! with a test tube in place of the letter i), they’re trying to come up with names for a tech tool they plan to build during a two-day hackathon at Tufts University’s data lab. The group includes computer science PhD candidates, mathematicians, political operatives, and experts in so-called geographic information systems, or GIS. That’s the mapping technology that underlies many apps and software tools that run our lives, from Google Maps to logistics software. It also comes in handy when you’re carving the American electorate into voting districts that favor your political party, a time-honored—and reviled—tradition known as gerrymandering.
Let’s be honest: Republicans have gamed Indiana’s voting system to their advantage. They gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts in their favor after the 2010 Census, helping the party gain supermajorities in the Indiana House and Senate. They’ve also suppressed the number of early voting sites in Democratic areas while encouraging their expansion in counties where Republicans dominate. Consider that in Marion County, population 939,000, voters can cast early ballots at only one location, at the City-County Building in congested Downtown. Republicans repeatedly have blocked proposals to open more voting centers in Indy.
Redistricting could explode as the top — and most heated — issue the next governor and General Assembly will face early next year, Virginia’s leading campaigner for reform said at a panel hosted by Peninsula Voices for Change. About 30 people attended the panel at Tabb Library Wednesday evening to discuss gerrymandering and redistricting in Virginia. Two Virginia cases working their way through state and federal courts and a Wisconsin case headed for the U.S. Supreme Court could mean “2018 will be a big year for redistricting,” said panelist Brian Cannon, executive director of the One Virginia 2021 advocacy group. “I think the next governor will have this on his desk,” Cannon said, adding that he thinks sooner or later Virginia will move toward an independent commission to draw House of Delegates, state Senate and congressional districts.
National: America’s dubious tradition of gerrymandering: Out of Line – Impact 2017 and Beyond | Cleveland Plain Dealer
Credit a clever cartoonist in Massachusetts for coining the term gerrymander in 1812, though the practice of drawing district maps to create political advantages was common practice long before then. The cartoon published by the pro-Federalist Boston Gazettecriticized legislative maps orchestrated by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry for the benefit of his Democratic-Republican Party over the Federalists. One district resembled the shape of a salamander. The cartoon depicted the district as a monster, labeling it “The Gerry-mander.” Merriam-Webster now definises gerrymander this way: “to divide (a territorial unit) into election districts to give one political party an electoral majority in a large number of districts while concentrating the voting strength of the opposition in as few districts as possible.”
Some of the brightest minds in math arrived at Tufts University last week to tackle an issue lawyers and political scientists have been struggling with for decades. They came from colleges across the country for a weeklong conference on gerrymandering, the practice of crafting voting districts in a way that favors voters from a certain political party or demographic. It’s a topic of growing interest among many math and data experts who say their scholarly fields can provide new tools to help courts identify voting maps that are drawn unfairly. Among those working to bridge the classroom and the courtroom is Moon Duchin, a math professor at Tufts who orchestrated the gathering at her Boston-area campus. The workshop was the first in a series being organized at campuses nationwide to unite academics and to harness cutting-edge mathematics to address gerrymandering.
Texas can’t use its current voter maps in the upcoming congressional midterm elections after a panel of federal judges ruled districts approved by state Republican lawmakers illegally discriminate against Hispanic and black voters. The three-judge panel in San Antonio gave the state three days to say if and when the Texas Legislature will fix the congressional map, which the judges concluded still carried the discriminatory taint of districts lawmakers originally drew in 2011 with the intent to squelch rising Latino voting strength. If Texas doesn’t intend to correct biased districts, the court will hold a hearing to solicit advice before redrawing the map on its own, the panel said Tuesday. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, expressed disappointment with the ruling, which he claimed didn’t square with the court’s approval of essentially the same district boundaries five years ago.
Editorials: Fine Lines: Partisan Gerrymandering and the Two Party State | Lexi Mealey/Harvard Political Review
The American experiment began with a revolution. At its core was fair representation, the idea that individuals should be able to exercise control over their government. The Declaration of Independence expresses this idea, with Thomas Jefferson writing, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed-That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.” Since the nation’s founding, equal representation has served as a crucial catalyst for social progress. The 15th Amendment that granted African American men the right to vote was based on this fundamental principle, and the 19th Amendment granting suffrage to women followed under the same premise. The idea that all individuals deserved fair representation, regardless of race and gender, later spurred the civil rights movement, and continues to influence modern political reform across the nation.
A Michigan petition aimed at preventing political gerrymandering will go before the Board of State Canvassers on Thursday, when potential approval could end a delay that cost organizers more than a month of prime summer signature-gathering time. The “Voters Not Politicians” petition proposes creating an independent citizen redistricting commission to redraw legislative and congressional boundaries every 10 years, a task currently controlled by the Michigan Legislature. Organizers submitted language on June 28, prompting Bureau of Elections staff to review what critics are calling an overly complicated proposal to amend the Michigan Constitution. The small-print proposal spans seven pages and would alter or repeal several sections of the state’s primary governing document.
Pennsylvania: Why Pennsylvania sends too many Republicans to Washington – and why that could change | Philadelphia Inquirer
Pennsylvania sends too many Republicans to Washington. That’s not a partisan attack. It’s just math. Of the 18 Pennsylvanian members of the House of Representatives, 13 are Republicans and 5 are Democrats. That split should be more like 11 to 7 or even 10 to 8 if the districts were drawn without attempts at favoring Republicans, according to recent expert analyses. It’s all about the map: Several lawsuits are attempting to get various state legislative and congressional maps declared unconstitutional on the basis of partisan gerrymandering, the idea that one political party drew the lines in a way that benefited them unfairly. The lawsuits rely on a set of tools that for the first time could convincingly identify skewed maps and persuade the courts that a state’s map goes too far in favoring one party. A federal court has ruled Wisconsin’s state legislative map unconstitutional, the first victory in a partisan gerrymandering case in three decades.
North Carolina’s legislative leaders adopted rules Thursday that they will use when drawing new election district lines, after 28 districts were ruled unconstitutional last year. The current lines were drawn in a way to unfairly disenfranchise black voters, federal courts found. While racial gerrymandering is illegal, the U.S. Supreme Court has so far allowed political gerrymandering, and one of the new rules is that legislators may consider past election results when drawing the new lines. Rep. David Lewis told a joint meeting of the House and Senate redistricting committees that the process “will be an inherently political thing.” Democrats opposed that rule, along with another one that says the new maps can be drawn in such a way to protect incumbents. “It just seems ridiculous to me that you get to say, ‘We will protect the incumbents elected using unconstitutional maps,’ ” House Minority Leader Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, said.
The last time Republicans had to redraw districts – in 2016, when courts found North Carolina’s congressional map unconstitutional – they included a required 10-3 Republican advantage in the map-making criteria. At the time, Lewis said he didn’t think an 11-2 map was possible. On Thursday, Lewis said he probably wouldn’t say it that way if he could go back, but he was trying to show the courts that race wasn’t the deciding factor in new maps – partisan politics was. Political gerrymanders are legal, although a Wisconsin case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court could change that. What the courts have forbidden is an over-emphasis on race when it comes to drawing lines.
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.
“Redistricting is a game of margins,” attorney Kate McKnight told lawmakers at the Legislative Summit in Boston. Legislatures always start with existing district maps and work from there, she said. No one starts completely from scratch. McKnight was joined by fellow attorney Abha Khanna for a discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in recent redistricting cases. Moderating the session, “Redistricting Goes to Court,” was Jessica Karls-Ruplinger, with the Wisconsin Legislative Council. As state legislators prepare to adjust the margins of districts in the next redistricting cycle based on the 2020 census, they’ll be looking to the court for guidance. It can be difficult to predict how a decision in one case might apply to others, but the attorneys told the group the court has asserted some general principles in recent decisions.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has suggested that it might be the most important case of the upcoming term. On October 3, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Gill v. Whitford, a challenge to the redistricting plan passed by Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature in 2011. A federal court struck down the plan last year, concluding that it violated the Constitution because it was the product of partisan gerrymandering – that is, the practice of purposely drawing district lines to favor one party and put another at a disadvantage. The challengers argue that the redistricting plan would allow Republicans to cement control of the state’s legislature for years to come, even if popular support for the party wanes; the lower court’s decision, they contend, merely corrected “a serious democratic malfunction that would otherwise have gone unremedied.” By contrast, the state of Wisconsin counters that if the lower court’s decision is allowed to stand, it will open the door to “unprecedented intervention in the American political process.”
Editorials: The U.S. could be free of gerrymandering. Here’s how other countries do redistricting. | Bernard Grofman and German Feierherd/The Washington Post
This year, on the first day of its term, the Supreme Court will consider the much-anticipated Gill v. Whitford. That case brings up the hot-button question of whether a state legislature may draw electoral districts that favor one party over another. Gerrymandering, as it’s called, is clearly prohibited if it’s done to dilute the votes of racial groups. But when it comes to partisan gerrymandering, the Supreme Court, while willing to hear some challenges, has so far been unwilling to declare such a plan to be an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. A decision on Gill affirming the lower court — or setting a new standard and remanding the case for further review by the lower court — has the potential to change that. Before the Supreme Court weighs in, let’s look at how other countries redistrict. How does redistricting differ in the United States from elsewhere? Are there lessons for Americans in these varying experiences and procedures?