Leaning back in his chair, Jonathan Mattingly swings his legs up onto his desk, presses a key on his laptop and changes the results of the 2012 elections in North Carolina. On the screen, flickering lines and dots outline a map of the state’s 13 congressional districts, each of which chooses one person to send to the US House of Representatives. By tweaking the borders of those election districts, but not changing a single vote, Mattingly’s maps show candidates from the Democratic Party winning six, seven or even eight seats in the race. In reality, they won only four — despite earning a majority of votes overall. Mattingly’s election simulations can’t rewrite history, but he hopes they will help to support democracy in the future — in his state and the nation as a whole. The mathematician, at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has designed an algorithm that pumps out random alternative versions of the state’s election maps — he’s created more than 24,000 so far — as part of an attempt to quantify the extent and impact of gerrymandering: when voting districts are drawn to favour or disfavour certain candidates or political parties.
Gerrymandering has a long and unpopular history in the United States. It is the main reason that the country ranked 55th of 158 nations — last among Western democracies — in a 2017 index of voting fairness run by the Electoral Integrity Project, an academic collaboration between the University of Sydney, Australia, and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although gerrymandering played no part in the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, it seems to have influenced who won seats in the US House of Representatives that year.
“Even if gerrymandering affected just 5 seats out of 435, that’s often enough to sway crucial votes,” Mattingly says.
The courts intervene when gerrymandering is driven by race. Last month, for example, the Supreme Court upheld a verdict that two North Carolina districts were drawn with racial composition in mind (see ‘Battleground state’). But the courts have been much less keen to weigh in on partisan gerrymandering — when one political party is favoured over another. One reason is that there has never been a clear and reliable metric to determine when this type of gerrymandering crosses the line from acceptable politicking to a violation of the US Constitution.