Apolitical Science

Redistricting PA’s map with professors instead of politicians. 

As state legislature grapples with redistricting conflicts, many Pennsylvanians are wondering: Could math provide a solution? According to a recent article on nbcphiladelphia.com, computers can draw accurate congressional maps that could set a new standard of fairness and neutrality for voters. Eleven top math & data science professors at universities across Pennsylvania are submitting their congressional map to Commonwealth Court January 24th for consideration.

What is redistricting and why should we care?

Every 10 years, states need to review fair boundary lines between their legislative districts, based on who is living where according to the latest US Census data. Since populations shift over time, the number of representatives allotted might need to be adjusted.

However! Whenever you lose or gain a seat, that affects the balance in state legislature. Political parties are obviously highly motivated to maintain – and even advance – their numbers. Traditionally, redistricting has been a by-partisan negotiation in which each side tries to exploit data and geographical features to keep special interests together.

Until about 2010, so-called “gerrymandering” was an inexact process and an act of compromise, debated more or less openly in public legislature. Then the US Supreme Court decided Citizens United – a case that has permitted “dark money” donations from global corporations to influence local elections, and in particular back campaigns to benefit their interests on a national level.

Around this same time, sophisticated computer programs were developed that could accurately and precisely “pack and crack” any district, giving political parties the tool they needed to carve out voter blocks and take as many district seats as possible. To do this, similar voters are pooled together in enclaves (where they remain unchallenged) or broken up and diffused. Communities where Red & Blue voters are equally mixed become artificially divided to give all the spoils to one party or the other.

Essentially, politicians get to choose their voters, as opposed to the other way around. Thanks to strategic (and some would say shady) funding and advanced redistricting software like Maptitude, America’s wealthy elite have commandeered the Republican party to coordinate an electoral takeover never before seen in the history of our country.

The Redistricting Majority Project aka REDMAP has paved the way for preposterous reconfigurations of voting districts that have given advantage to hand-picked Republican candidates at all levels of government, even when the majority of voters favored Democrats. With such leverage, every subsequent redistricting tends to tip the balance even further. As Karl Rove famously observed, “He who controls redistricting, controls Congress.”

What can we do, to level the playing field so candidates answer to their constituents again, not their parties?

Science to the rescue!

Computers got us into this mess, and they can get us out.

According to Penn mathematician Philip Gressman in NBC’s article, it’s totally logical that computer-assisted maps would help states create fair and unbiased district maps. “I believe mathematics has something really important to bring to the process,” he said, “And if redistricting doesn’t work well, it can really be turned against voters.”

Gressman’s part of a collective of 10 other mathematicians and data experts who have been working on a redistricting program that can create a map to meet all the constitutional requirements — take into account all the latest Census information — while also guaranteeing there’s no tampering from political or special interests. Their map-generating program has been running for weeks, configuring millions of variations to develop the most balanced representation for the state’s 8.7 million registered voters (and 13 million residents).

They’ve sued the state for – and won —  their right to present their findings. They’ll be submitting their computer-generated map Monday, January 24th, and asking the state’s second-highest court to use it instead of one chosen by political parties. If the Commonwealth Court sides with the professors, it would set a precedent and send a powerful message for democracy.

For the mathematicians’ attorney, Sam Hirsch, his clients have the answer to end gerrymandering. Scientists across the country are excited to use their skills to help bring neutrality and transparency to elections, and give power back to the people.

It’s a long shot, though. The only reason the Commonwealth Court might get to pick PA’s redistricting map is because of a stalemate between Gov Wolf and our Republican legislature. While an agreement seems unlikely, there’s still a possibility over these next few weeks. Meanwhile, February 15 marks the start of the nomination period for candidates to gather signatures for the May primary ballot. Republicans maintain it’s key to have this matter settled by then. Tick tock!

With public comments closed since January 18, there’s not a whole lot for average citizens to do — with one exception. Anyone can file a lawsuit with the PA Supreme Court after the final maps are released by the Commonwealth Court. (The period to file is 30 days after the release of the maps, which some expect by Friday 1/28.) While you’re waiting for the “final” maps and mulling litigation, check out David Daley’s excellent exposé Ratf**ked, which pulls back the curtain on our sham of a political system, to show how it’s devolved into a sick competition that’s killing democracy.

For additional information about citizen efforts going on right now to combat gerrymandering, visit Fair Districts PA and the Committee of Seventy. Please click on the links in this article to dive deeper into this fascinating issue affecting all of us. Comments and questions welcome below.

**UPDATE** Pam Weighs In

Rep. Pam DeLissio Weighs In

After publishing this post, we checked in with our Representative Pam DeLissio, who was thrilled to talk about redistricting, a pet project of hers. Although Pam is intrigued by the idea of a mathematical solution, she told us she’d need to know more about the algorithms behind the models. “It’s hard to know exactly how fair math-aided districts would be for those of us who don’t have a grasp of the advanced math underlying the programs,” she said.

Since first getting elected in 2011, she’s been a tireless advocate for another solution — an Independent Redistricting Commission. Such a commission would be led by citizens, taking the process out of the hands of elected officials. Unfortunately, efforts to create such a commission have been discouragingly unsuccessful. She believes that those efforts have, however, “resulted in citizens paying closer attention to the current redistricting process.” For additional information on these citizen efforts, you can visit Fair Districts PA.

The following is the transcript of Pam’s speech (above) to the PA House on January 12, in which she criticizes the redistricting process that resulted in HB 2146, the proposed PA congressional map:

Mr. Speaker I just want to share that the first year I served in office was in 2011, a redistricting year. And I found the process then to be opaque and non-transparent. It was everything I had heard about redistricting and gerrymandering coming to life in 3-D before my eyes — elected officials dividing up the spoils, if you will, to decide who their voters would be in their districts.

So for the past 11 years, I have been a proponent of an Independent Redistricting Commission, which is true redistricting reform. I have held 112 town halls and addressed this topic in 50 of those town halls because this is a foundational issue, a keystone issue, for our Commonwealth. And if we don’t get it right this time, we are going to live with our mistakes for the next 10 years, as my district has lived with the mistakes of the previous 10 years.

I object to the word use of the word “citizens” in regard to this, citizens had nothing to do with the process. They may have had some input. And as far as I’m aware, in the county of Philadelphia, there was one hearing during a weekday, at a time of day when many people were not necessarily available, to attend in a location that was not easily accessible.

So I don’t doubt that there was citizen input along the way. But this was not a citizen-driven process. This was an elected official driven process. So I have advised my constituents as recently as last Tuesday, when I held a special town hall to talk about the preliminary maps that have been released by the reapportionment commission, and the pending congressional map. Anybody can label anything a “citizens map” when we have a process in place in this Commonwealth that truly is citizen driven. That is made up of folks who do not have a vested interest in holding the public office for which they’re drawing the maps, then we will be entitled to say that it is truly a citizens’ map. And we have only to look to the state of Michigan, which started this process about five or six years ago, and in fact put an independent redistricting commission in place, which came up with fair districts. These maps are not that and I will be a “no” vote on this bill.

Representative Pamela A. DeLissio serves the 194th Legislative District, which includes East Falls

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