Redistricting: Should Computers Draw the Lines?

Traditionally, state legislators are in charge of congressional and legislative redistricting. Many reformers want people with less of a stake in the outcome to draw the lines. Could it be that both sides are wrong? Why have people do the hard work -- why not have computers do it?
by | July 26, 2010

Traditionally, state legislators are in charge of congressional and legislative redistricting. Many reformers want people with less of a stake in the outcome -- regular citizens, academics or retired judges -- to draw the lines.

When I was speaking with Illinois State Rep. Mike Fortner last week, it occurred to me that perhaps both sides are wrong. Perhaps the best redistricters aren't people at all. Why not have computers do it?

Fortner is an interesting guy. In addition to being a Republican lawmaker, he's also a physicist at Batavia, Illinois' Fermilab, which has one of the world's largest particle accelerators.

When he isn't smashing really small things together really quickly, Fortner has a passion for redistricting. "I enjoy maps and numbers and politics," he says.

Fortner helped advise a joint project between the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute that outlined principles for transparency in redistricting -- thing like "Redistricting plans must be available in non-proprietary formats." Even more interestingly (to me anyway), Fortner was one of three winners of Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner's redistricting competition.

Brunner's competition was an experiment in the democratization of redistricting. She offered regular citizens the tools to redraw Ohio's 2000 congressional map. The results were a resounding victory for the general public (although, ironically, one of those regular citizens was a state lawmaker himself: Fortner). Every single legitimate map the public produced was "quantitatively fairer" than the real one that Ohio lawmakers had drawn in 2001.

It's no great revelation that people who aren't motivated by partisan interests can produce fairer maps than people who are. What's revolutionary is that other word: quantitatively.

The maps weren't judged by Brunner or anyone else. They were judged by a formula entered into a computer. This formula judged the maps on four criteria: Compactness, competitiveness, representational fairness and uniting communities of interest. In essence, Ohio turned the art of evaluating district lines into a science.

Fortner, he explained, loved this concept so much that he proposed a constitutional amendment in Illinois that would have required a similar redistricting competition in his state -- one to genuinely determine the state's district lines. Lawmakers would only be allowed to vote on the three publicly submitted plans that scored the highest. If they couldn't decide, the highest scoring plan would become law.

At this point in the conversation, two things dawned on me. First, this idea could be taken one step further. If a computer can evaluate a map that is drawn by a person, it can evaluate a map drawn by a computer. Second, my brother Tim was going to solve this whole redistricting problem once and for all.

Like Fortner, Tim has a Ph.D in physics. He's really good at writing computer programs. I seem to remember he wrote a program to make the perfect tic-tac-toe move -- and that was when he was in high school. Why couldn't Tim just write a computer program that finds the optimal map based on whatever criteria someone inputs, weighted in whatever way they prefer?

Forget the months of divisive debate, the political deals, the lawsuits, the lawmakers fleeing to New Mexco. Voila, perfect maps! States would save millions upon millions of dollars.

Or perhaps not. Fortner didn't think it was such a great idea. First of all, he said getting a computer to do this is tougher than it sounds. That actually didn't surprise me. The most intuitive way for a computer to find the best possible map would be for it to score every possible map. But, that would be a lot of maps. In California, there likely are more ways to draw the state's legislative districts than there are atoms in the universe. That's what happens when you can move any line by 50 feet and have a new plan.

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.

Case in point: Fortner is in the minority party in the Illinois legislature. As a result, his constitutional amendment went nowhere.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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