Daily Archives: August 4, 2010

governing.com article – Redistricting: Should Computers Draw the Lines?

Josh Goodman has an interesting article up about redistricting algorithmically (An idea which I support):

Redistricting: Should Computers Draw the Lines?

What’s more, the maps only would be as good as the formula that Tim or Mike Fortner or anyone else wrote. Fortner pointed out that some elements of redistricting are awfully difficult to code. How do you tell a computer to abide by the Voting Rights Act, which is a matter of judicial interpretation?

Fortner did say that a computer might be able to handle a relatively simple map, like Iowa’s congressional districts. Iowa is overwhelmingly white, so it doesn’t have to worry about Voting Rights Acts compliance in redistricting. It only has five congressional seats. And it has a rule that counties can’t be divided. Of course, the same factors that make it an easier place for a computer to draw a map also make it an easier place for humans to draw maps. “The computer is best as a tool to guide people,” Fortner told me, “and let them know how they’re doing.”

Just to make sure my idea was bad, I posed it to a couple of panelists discussing technology in redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislature’s annual meeting in Louisville (where I am this week). Kim Brace, president of Election Data Services Inc., said there actually has been quite a lot of academic research into using computers to redraw maps — with lousy results. “If you think legislative plans look crazy,” he said, “wait until you see what a computer does.”

Mark Stratton, who works on redistricting with Indiana’s Legislative Services Agency, made another point: A redistricting plan only does any good if legislators are willing to vote it into law. “The computer,” he said, “can’t vote for the plan.”

At first, that comment struck me as missing the point. Whether the maps are drawn by humans or computers, there are plenty of ways to structure the redistricting process so that lawmakers have no choice but to accept proposals that abide by objective criteria. Fortner’s constitutional amendment would have done just that in Illinois.

But, the more I think about it, Stratton was making the critical point. People are perfectly capable of drawing fair, reasonable congressional and legislative lines. When states end up with unfair, unreasonable lines, it isn’t because no one could figure out how to draw a better map. The reason is politics.