At 6’5″, Aaron Dennis towers over the whiteboard beside him. Blue marker in hand, the 22-year-old hunches slightly to jot down suggestions being shouted by a group of people deep into a brainstorming session. Dressed mostly in nerdy T-shirts (one reads Science! with a test tube in place of the letter i), they’re trying to come up with names for a tech tool they plan to build during a two-day hackathon at Tufts University’s data lab.
The group includes computer science PhD candidates, mathematicians, political operatives, and experts in so-called geographic information systems, or GIS. That’s the mapping technology that underlies many apps and software tools that run our lives, from Google Maps to logistics software.
It also comes in handy when you’re carving the American electorate into voting districts that favor your political party, a time-honored—and reviled—tradition known as gerrymandering.
That’s what’s brought the group here to Tufts. They’re participants in a weeklong summer camp of sorts for adults focused on how math and technology can be used to make electoral maps more fair, and to convince judges and juries when they’re not. Gerrymandering, they believe, allows politicians to choose their voters, not the other way around. This event is the first of many planned by the unfortunately named Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group at Tufts. You can think of the hackathon as the arts and crafts part of the week—a chance for the geeks to get their hands dirty. Attendees had to apply to this session; just 14 made the cut.
On the whiteboard Dennis has scribbled “Gerrymandr,” “Gerrymetrics,” and “Politishape.”
“What about Salamander?” offers 33-year-old Ariel M’ndange-Pfupfu, a data scientist from Washington, DC. Gerrymandering got its name, after all, in 1812, when then-Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry ratified a political map in which one district looked like a salamander.`
High court to consider whether excessive partisan gerrymandering violates constitution
The Supreme Court in Washington. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider whether there are constitutional limits to how far lawmakers can go in drawing electoral districts to maximize partisan political advantage, a case that could have profound implications for U.S. elections.
The justices in a brief written order said they would review a redistricting case from Wisconsin, where a three-judge lower court last year invalidated a redistricting planenacted by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature in 2011.
In a hint of the potential divisiveness of the case, the high court on a 5-4 vote stayed the effect of the lower court ruling while it hears the case. That means Wisconsin officials for now won’t have to put a remedial redistricting map in place.
The stay suggests the court is proceeding with some trepidation as it wades into a highly political issue that has bedeviled justices in the past. The court’s four liberal justices would have denied the stay and left in place the lower court’s order requiring a new map by Nov. 1.
Political gerrymanders are as old as the republic, though they have become more sophisticated as the technological possibilities of mapping have expanded with time. Both Republicans and Democrats have been accused of engaging in excessively partisan line-drawing in states where they hold power.
Critics say the tactic creates too many uncontested districts, encourages overly partisan candidates and enables the party in power to skew voting results in its favor.
Other cases are pending in court, including ones challenging Republican-backed lines drawn in North Carolina and map-making by Democrats in Maryland. Any rules announced by the high court would almost certainly affect districts drawn by state lawmakers both for Congress and for state legislatures.
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said the timing of the case was particularly important with a new census on the horizon in 2020. States traditionally redraw their congressional and legislative districts after each decennial census.
The Supreme Court’s Monday decision to strike down a North Carolina congressional district map is being hailed as a victory for voting rights advocates — though some caution that the path ahead for Democrats fighting gerrymandering has just become more treacherous.
The court’s decision in Cooper v. Harris found that North Carolina’s legislature had improperly considered race when it drew two congressional districts after the 2010 census. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion with three liberal colleagues. Justice Clarence Thomas, the anchor of the court’s conservative wing, joined them.
“The Supreme Court has now made it abundantly clear to Republican legislators that their cynical game of using race as an excuse to gerrymander is over, and that the courts are not going to sit by when challenges are brought,” said Marc Elias, the Democratic lawyer who argued the case. “And I plan on bringing those challenges.”
Elias said his phone has been “ringing off the hook” with calls from legislators who believe the decision could open their states to new legal challenges.
“We are looking for other places where Republican legislatures have committed the same legal error,” he said.
But Thomas’s concurring opinion offered a warning to those celebrating the ruling. In his opinion, Thomas said the North Carolina defendants improperly relied on the Voting Rights Act, which he believes does not apply to redistricting at all.
Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who joined the Supreme Court after arguments in the North Carolina case, did not participate in the ruling.
Beijing’s aggressive approach threatens to keep other important initiatives on the back burner
For years, China seemed to defy the “trilemma,” an economic theory that a country can’t at the same time have a controlled exchange rate, free flow of capital and an independent monetary policy. Now Beijing is betting big on defending the yuan. Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News
BEIJING—President Xi Jinping gathered with his economic mandarins in December for their annual strategy meeting at a heavily guarded government hotel. In closed-door sessions, say people familiar with the confab, he made clear what their mandate was for 2017: He would tolerate no wobbliness in the economy.
The communiqué coming out of the session singled out one policy objective in particular—keep the yuan stable.
What followed has been the marked acceleration of a shift in priorities at the People’s Bank of China, the central bank, toward preventing the currency from cratering above all else.
The yuan’s value is a global hot button, and Beijing’s handling of it has played prominently in President Donald Trump’s rhetoric. In a Wall Street Journal interview Wednesday, Mr. Trump said his administration in a report due this week won’t label China a currency manipulator, something he threatened to do during his campaign. On Thursday, China’s central bank guided the yuan to its biggest one-day gain against the dollar in nearly three months, putting it at the strongest level against the dollar since Feb. 17. The yuan has gained 1% this year against the dollar.
Lawmakers often reshape voting districts to shift the balance of political power. That’s unfair to voters, even those of us with questionable judgment.
Courts may soon have new tools by which to determine if a voting district has been drawn unfairly
(Credit: RATOCA via Shutterstock/Salon)
For nearly as long as the Unites States has existed there have been partisan hacks trying to draw up voting districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair advantage over the other. Though judges acknowledge that this partisan gerrymandering occurs, and that it can be unconstitutional, there’s hasn’t yet been a definitive way for them to decide whether a district has been egregiously engineered to politically neuter voters of an opposing party.
Indeed, as recently as 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that measuring how much political influence on redistricting is too much is an “unanswerable question.”
But thanks to the power of algorithms and the latest supercomputing powers, new methods are arising that can help answer this unanswerable question. These methods played a role in November in convincing a three-judge panel to invalidate Wisconsin’s district assembly maps. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a final ruling this fall, and if the decision is upheld it would be a victory for political and social scientists, and it may finally give judges reliable methodologies to help decide if voting districts have been unfairly drawn.
“For a long time the courts have been talking about lacking the tools to measure the things that they’ve been asking to be measured,” Wendy K. Tam Cho, a political scientist and statistician at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, told Salon. “We’re taking technology and bringing it to this problem.”