Editorial: Working toward a fair map

Published: 2/5/2017 12:05:09 AM

New Hampshire Democrats would have been justified in yelling “We was robbed” after the last state Senate election. But the end could be in sight for the time-honored practice of gerrymandering electoral districts.

In principle, redistricting is the decennial requirement that electoral boundaries be analyzed and redrawn, if necessary, in an attempt to ensure that every vote carries equal weight. (The Electoral College system ignores that requirement, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Often, however, redistricting is the process of redrawing electoral maps to load the dice in favor of the party in power. Historically both parties have engaged in it.

Though illegal if done based on race or to guarantee partisan advantage, gerrymandering persists because the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled against it. Nor have a majority of justices yet agreed on how skewed a plan must be to be unconstitutional. That could change this year and, thanks to mathematics and technology, change for good.

A Wisconsin case alleging partisan redistricting by that state’s Republicans is slated to be argued this year. And, as Monitor columnist David Brooks wrote this week, tools now exist that can apportion electoral districts fairly and pinpoint districts that were created to gain or preserve political advantage. In fact, this summer Tufts University will hold a weeklong seminar for high-level mathematicians to train them in the ability to use algorithms to optimize voting fairness.

As Brooks explained, that’s what Google Maps does to balance distances, traffic congestion and speed limits, and select the best route for motorists. The mathematicians will also be trained in the skills needed to testify as an expert witness in court cases over redistricting.

According to a Monitor analysis published in December, if the electoral map hadn’t been redrawn after the 2010 census, Democrats would likely hold a 13-11 majority in the Senate. The redrawn map allowed Republicans to maintain their 14-10 majority.

Just to look at the map raises questions. Had gerrymandering been provably illegal, legislative outcomes at the state and federal levels might have been different. In New Hampshire, the outcome on a right-to-work law and other issues would have been different.

Republicans controlled twice as many state legislatures as Democrats after the 2010 census and, according to professor Bernard Grofman, a redistricting expert at the University of California Irvine, the subsequent gerrymandering made a 20- to 41-seat difference in the makeup of the U.S. House, an advantage they’re likely to enjoy for at least the rest of the decade. Republicans also have a 4-1 advantage in control of state governments which, barring Supreme Court action, will allow them to continue to pack likely Democratic voters into a limited number of districts to guarantee their party a numerical majority.

The work at Tufts, led by math professor Moon Duchin, should convince a majority of Supreme Court justices that gerrymandering is real, provable and unconstitutional. It will give legislatures a quick and easy way to create fair electoral maps.

In New Hampshire, whose elections are among the most closely observed on Earth, Rep. Jerry Knirk, a Democrat from Freedom, has filed a bill whose passage would require that districts be reapportioned using algorithms to optimize their fairness. Lawmakers could guarantee that every citizen’s vote counts equally, and probably save the state a bundle in future legal costs, by passing Knirk’s bill.

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