Mathematicians Could Help In Gerrymandering Legal Cases

Aug 17, 2017
Originally published on August 17, 2017 6:06 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Federal courts are increasingly being asked to weigh in on gerrymandering. That of course is when political boundaries are drawn to favor one party or candidate over another. Texas last week was ordered to redraw two congressional districts because of gerrymandering. North Carolina may vote next week on new legislative districts that a court ordered it to draw. And this fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a major case out of Wisconsin about gerrymandering. Mathematicians are watching all of this closely, as reporter Ari Daniel discovered.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: Moon Duchin is definitely the ringleader.

MOON DUCHIN: OK, hi. Welcome. I'm incredibly excited to see you all here today.

(APPLAUSE)

DANIEL: Duchin's a mathematician at Tufts University near Boston, and she's on stage at a local theater, addressing a crowd of over 500 academics, teachers and lawyers. It's the kickoff to a week-long gathering she's helped organize called Geometry of Redistricting.

DUCHIN: This isn't mathematicians trying to liberate us from politics. This is mathematicians trying to be in conversation with politics.

DANIEL: Specifically the politics of how voting districts get drawn, both their shapes and who ends up inside those shapes. Here's how Duchin put it to me later.

DUCHIN: You're just not seeing the story if you're only looking at the outlines. The name of the game is to see what's inside and not just what's around the edges.

DANIEL: That is, a district shape is a representation of a community, people of a certain race or political party. So those shapes matter when it comes to voting. On paper, states are tasked with creating compact districts.

DUCHIN: You get this whole laundry list of insults thrown at bad-looking districts. Compactness means non-eccentric shapes.

DANIEL: But what exactly is a non-eccentric shape? This is what gets argued over in court when states are accused of gerrymandering. But Duchin's reviewed reams of courtroom testimony, and there are never any mathematicians present.

DUCHIN: People whose expertise is geometry to protest when the court would say, well, we have no principled way of knowing what shapes are good or bad.

DANIEL: Duchin's mission is to get mathematicians and computer scientists who study geometry, shape and complex math to coalesce around answering this question, folks like Nestor Guillen, a mathematician at UMass Amherst, originally from Venezuela.

NESTOR GUILLEN: This is the most politically engaged I've been in politics in the United States since I've been here, yeah.

DANIEL: But getting state legislatures to acknowledge math as they redraw districts is another matter, which is why 31 of the people here, including Guillen, are going a step further. They're training to become expert witnesses available to courtrooms to testify about what makes a shape good or bad for when the lawsuits get filed. Moon Duchin...

DUCHIN: It's the court's job to come up with a legal standard, our job to supply really solid testimony and ideas and evidence to meet that standard.

DANIEL: Duchin's already been contacted by two law firms asking whether she's got any expert witnesses on hand to testify. With the next big round of redistricting coming in 2021, the demand is there. This training's about cultivating the supply, which Duchin will be increasing as she takes her workshop from coast to coast over the next seven months. For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel in Boston.

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