Middle Schoolers Solve Gerrymandering!

One of the many structural problems that prevents America from experiencing genuine democratic accountability is gerrymandering. Those of you who have been reading this blog for more than a few months will have encountered my frequent posts describing the multitude of ways that partisan redistricting–aka gerrymandering–distorts election results and operates to suppress citizen participation.

Over the years, the Supreme Court’s majority has declined to find partisan redistricting unconstitutional or even justiciable–piously labeling it a “political question.” One of the Court’s excuses was the unavailability of reliable tests to determine whether a vote margin was the result of a gerrymander or simply a reflection of majority sentiment. Even after tests were developed that proved their accuracy to the satisfaction of lower courts,  the Supreme Court declined to rule against the practice, reinforcing the widespread conclusion that the Justices’ decisions were impelled more by ideology than an inability to determine whether gerrymandering had occurred.

Now, according to a fascinating article from Forbes,  a group of middle-school children has demonstrated the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff–or in this case, the gerrymander from political enthusiasm.

The article began by noting that the practice of gerrymandering is used to “dilute the voting power of certain constituents, minorities, and other groups.” (In the felicitous phrase coined by Common Cause, gerrymandering is the process that allows legislators to choose their voters, rather than the other way around.)

As the subject of their science research project, three middle school students from Niskayuna, New York, decided to take on this serious issue. In their work, Kai Vernooy, James Lian, and Arin Khare devised a way to measure the amount of gerrymandering in each state and created a mathematical algorithm that could draw fair and balanced district boundaries. The results of the project were submitted to Broadcom MASTERS, the nation’s leading middle school STEM competition run by the Society for Science & the Public, where Vernooy, 14, won the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation and a $10,000 prize.

These middle schoolers, who are too young to vote, decided to use scientific research to solve the problem of identifying when a redistricting map was the product of a gerrymander. They came up with a method of identifying political communities and regions of like-minded voters, then grouped those communities together to form precincts.

Each precinct was adjusted to include a compact or circle-like shape, a similar population size and a similar partisanship ratio. The result was a simple representation of where groups of like-minded voters live in each state.

These precincts were then compared to actual voting districts within the state. The comparison shows the percentage of people that are in the precinct but not the district, therefore illuminating the number of people that the district fails to represent. Using this method, they were able to give each state a gerrymandering score.

The article included color-coded maps illustrating the process the middle-schoolers devised. It ended with the pious hope that “the right people” would take note.

The article should serve to remind us that there are solutions even to seemingly intractable structural problems. The disinclination of the Court and Congress to actually implement those solutions is a different kind of reminder.

That disinclination reminds us that the people who benefit from cheating are unlikely to be interested in stopping the practice.

22 thoughts on “Middle Schoolers Solve Gerrymandering!

  1. They are “middle schoolers” – 7th and 8th graders – and around the ages of 12 and 13, I infer. This is a significant advance over our present system in which legislators who impose jerrymandering on us have an aggregate mental age of roughly 6.2 years. (I added the point two to make my estimate sound more scientific, in keeping with the context of the post.)

  2. “Over the years, the Supreme Court’s majority has declined to find partisan redistricting unconstitutional or even justiciable–piously labeling it a “political question.”

    Long before Trump turned all responsibility for our survival from this Covid-19 Pandemic over to the states to avoid his responsibility; the Supreme Court turned the responsibility for redistricting/gerrymandering INTO a “political question” to avoid the responsibility of rendering a decision. Of course the Supreme Court is now a “political question” rather than the Judicial branch of the government.

    Article I of the Constitution, in Section 2: “…The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand,…”

    The political parties already have “…a method of identifying political communities and regions of like-minded voters, then grouped those communities together to form” their districts. The Constitution does not identify “political or like-minded voters”; only the number of citizens per Representative. Amendment XIII abolished slavery, adding to the number of citizens but not until Amendment XV did they have the right to vote. Amendment XIX FINALLY gave women the right to vote. Those three Amendments added to the qualified number of citizens to decide the number of Representatives per state.

    Per the Constitution, Redistricting should be based on the number of Representatives based on the number of citizens in a district. Gerrymandering is based on the number of “like-minded voters” the political party Representative can expect to elect them. Does the population number in districts change enough to add or subtract the number of Representatives per state or are only voters considered?

    I know my comments are confusing but the gerrymandering situation seems to remain a confusing situation with frequent changing of district outlines and the inclusions and exclusions of the people within the Representative districts who have no say in the matter. Also confusing are the districts which have changing district lines but the same candidate from the same political party running for reelection year after year with no opposition…including no opposition within their own party in Primary Elections giving voters no choice.

    The blog issue today points out “That disinclination reminds us that the people who benefit from cheating are unlikely to be interested in stopping the practice.” which is the foundation of Red States vs. Blue States which leaves election results up to parties rather than voters. Except for the current election which results appears to be up to Trump and Barr with Giuliani thrown in now as their wild card.

    State lines and county lines are firmly set; why not Representative district lines?

  3. As these STEM studying middle schoolers showed, the solutions to our problems aren’t that hard, mainly because they were rigged, to begin with. As Sheila writes, “That disinclination reminds us that the people who benefit from cheating are unlikely to be interested in stopping the practice.”

    One of my medical doctor associates in Southern Indiana wrote a fantastic study proposal linking the mercury bellowed out by super coal-burning plants in Indiana was linked to high infant mortality rates. Indiana is one of the highest in the country, while the USA is the highest globally. She presented the findings to her regional AMA. After some discussion, she was asked to present her evidence to a committee of our state lawmakers. Once she started speaking, they shut off her microphone.

    When I assisted one of our major environmental groups in Indiana, I checked on IDEM’s air monitoring equipment. Guess what? They use “gerrymandering” tactics to place their monitors.

    We learned that if the data isn’t available, then the government can deny that air pollution exists.

    We did the same thing with water pollution and CAFOs after Mitch Daniels invited the worst offenders to Indiana from North Carolina. This is why ALL our waterways are contaminated. You have no idea what gerrymandering techniques the oligarchs and their politicians went through. It’s amazing!

    Every hurdle you leap over, you’ll find another one placed ever higher. It’s obstructionism. It’s oppression by the oligarchy. People don’t matter—profit matters. Voting provides the illusion of a democracy that doesn’t exist.

  4. This is precisely the reason NOT to celebrate the election results (if they are allowed to stand by those truly seeking to steal the election). The Dems had relatively poor performance in down ballot races and failed to take even one state legislature in 2020. If they had done better, we might have had a chance to return to a nearly one person one vote country, rather than a minority rule country.

  5. What would you expect from those slant eyes who take over all our valedictorian slots. Send them back! [attempt at Friday humor – Turkey came early instead]

  6. Out of the mouths of babes….

    They should send this to SCOTUS and any justice who might rule on issues with gerrymandering.

  7. Elementary School teachers in Marcianise, Italy, assigned their classes to write themes on the subject “If Jesus Returned.” The Italian newspaper “Paese Sera” published these edited excerpts: “When he went into the churches and saw marble altars, golden and silver candelabras, so many beautiful paintings and statues,” wrote the children, “Jesus thought: ‘My disciples and I were poor and here my new disciples are rich.’ Every time Jesus would come out of a church he was disappointed and unhappy.” And, in the opinion of the children, what was Jesus’ final judgment after his visit? “The Christians today are not Christians any more.”

    Most children have an honest and unadulterated view and opinion of life! We as adults like to think we have all of the answers, but as Christ said, (Out Of The Mouth Of Babes), Jesus Christ knew it, Christ also knew that it took effort to pound disbelief into a child’s psyche. (Matthew 21:16)

    Out of the mouth of children and infants you have established strength On account of your adversaries, To silence the enemy and the avenger. (Psalms 8:2)

    Sometimes they tend to laugh at children because of their innocence and straightforward observations, because for the most part, children unlike their parents and other adults, have not learned how to lie yet! Once the lying starts, the internal guardrails of conscience are made moot!

    Of course, this is religious in nature, but also, it’s ethically correct.

    The point I’m trying to make here, it’s not religion that is the enemy, it is man who has manipulated Scripture and manipulated religion, basically weaponized religion to subjugate their enemies or opponents. Man has used religion to lie steel and sheet by manipulating and taking out of context, Scriptures!

    So, who is the child here? Gerrymandering is juvenile, boldface lying is juvenile, throwing tantrums is juvenile, and yet is folks see themselves as adults! There is no shame anymore, you can’t shame someone because of their ignorance or stupidity, not if they wear it as a badge of honor! And, trumps supporters and those who try to subvert civil freedoms don’t hide who they are or what they do, because they’re proud of it.

    You have the makers of conspiracy, dishonest behavior, and then you have the takers or the consumers of it! Are the consumers or takers (partaker) worthy of honor? Absolutely not!

    In the Middle Ages a disgusting rumor spread among the so-called Christians of Europe. It was whispered that each year at Passover, the Jews murdered a Christian and used his blood in their rituals. Sometimes they were said to capture Christian children and torture them horribly before killing them and using their blood. Right up until this century, during the Nazi period in Germany, this rumor was used as an excuse to persecute the Jews.

    During the time of these rumors, it was investigated and disapproved constantly, but, these rumors and lies are complex and difficult to get rid of. This happened in the Middle Ages, what were seeing now is identical. The names have changed, but the goal has not, subjugating those who are not like you! Making the world one hegemonic belief, forcing those to believe something that they don’t! This cannot stand, this was and is a sign of man’s inhumanity to man!

    (All of this I have seen, and I applied my heart to every work that has been done under the sun, during the time that man has dominated man to his harm.) Ecclesiastes 8:9

    And lastly, out of the mouth of babes, we have the famous nonreligious story of “Anne Frank”
    she was famously quoted from her diary, she said; “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.”

    She died of typhus in a concentration camp at the age of 16!

    Listen to the children! They have not been ruined yet!

    Those who are religious absolutely have to see that their interference and secular policy and government is completely out of bounds.

  8. While the Supreme Court would have been correct 50 yrs ago, not so in 2020 or 2010. Speaking of Ohio where one district is connected by a bridge, another goes from east to west Penn to Ind. Hamilton Cty(Cincinnati) is split in half to avoid a more Democrat populace-one district is connected by one block width for 1/2 mile. All these districts were created by computer apps programmed with the precise voting patterns by state wide precincts. The information is available. The Supreme Court has taken the Sgt. Schultz avenue-“I SEE NOTHING”

  9. Some middle schoolers now will be the Greta Thunbergs of tomorrow. Sadly, some will be the Steven Millers…

    .”Teach your children well….

    “You have to be carefully taught….”

  10. Lester, I find your attempt at humor @ 8:42 am, highly offensive. Do you have anymore ethnic slur “jokes”???

  11. What an incredibly cool math project! I just passed the Forbes article on to some other math and math education faculty at the University of Indianapolis and some of my math teacher friends in the public schools.

  12. Monotonous – I made it clear that this was pure, bad satire. Get over your PCness and smile for a change. Prejudice is real….as you may have just demonstrated. FLEX

  13. One of the reasons that I am a stem guy is that is gives me an excuse to keep up with technology at a time in history when human stem knowledge has literately exploded. Every development opens the door to new knowledge about the reality that life is one with.

    On one hand the accomplishment of these middle school students is amazing because it requires an exceptional level of maturity to even take on the problem that they did and see it through to a successful completion. On the other hand consider the tools that they had to work with to accomplish their goal. They and we are well armed for the future.

    But, on the other hand, consider that for many especially older people those tools are beyond comprehension. That level of understanding of reality is denied them because we all thought that when they left school they were educated enough for their lives. Perhaps that used to be true when the real knowledge to do work came after school by doing. Now just to keep up, education must occur most every day and must be focused and somewhat narrow so we all must depend on others who race to keep up in other fields.

    This world is not our parents world and not even ours because there’s so much known that we haven’t learned. Our choice is between obsolescence and life long learning.

    Choose your fields well kids and never, ever stop learning.

  14. Gerrymandering is indeed a huge problem. It is resulting in more non-competitive districts in which the most extreme Republicans and Democrats are elected. Very few “moderate” Republicans and Democrats left. Here are some thoughts I have on gerrymandering.

    Gerrymandering is very difficult to solve as a political question. Both parties jump at the chance to draw district lines to favor themselves when given the opportunity. Sometimes things get handed over to “independent” commissions, but wresting politics out of the process even doing that is next to impossible.

    What is going on now is not that gerrymandering is taking place more often, but they are so much better at it. With computers and more data, the majority party is so much able to effectively draw the lines to achieve their partisan goals.

    Gerrymandering can backfire. Republicans drew the Indianapolis City-County Council districts now in use. It was designed to produce a narrow GOP majority but the Republican numbers were falling so rapidly that it didn’t take long for the Ds to take control. The Ds now have a 20-5 majority in Marion County. Democrats have about 63% of the vote in Marion County and 80% representation on the council…all accomplished with a map drawn by Republicans.

    Gerrymandering used to be simple. Democrats all lived in the cities, while Republicans dominated the suburbs, the exurbs and the rural areas. Now, there are a lot more Ds in the suburbs while the R vote in the exurbs and rural areas have increased. The key in any gerrymandering is to pack your opponent in a few districts while drawing districts for the majority party that they can win by a relatively close, albeit safe, margin. In other words, you’re spreading your vote out so you get the maximum use out of it. I don’t know how when drawing the map, the GOP can pick D’s into parts of the suburb to make other parts safely R. How do you do that in Hamilton County, for example, when Ds and Rs and living right next to each other in Fishers, Westfield, and Carmel. Ds are getting close to running even in those formerly heavily Republican cities.

    I’m very much a person who believes in judicial restraint. But even I am open to a judicial solution to the problem of gerrymandering. The more effective gerrymandering schemes of today have played a role in poisoning our politics.

  15. Apropos of nothing, only two months from today our joke of a president will leave the most powerful job on the planet to experience far more difficulty in killing innocents and making our lives miserable. No doubt he will continue to try, because cruelty is the very essence of his being. But his successes in keeping his misery-making skills sharp will mostly be limited to people named Trump. But in a few years they will be rewarded, as was their only thought all along, by inheriting whatever remains of his ill-gotten gains. At his funeral will even one of them be able to utter the words, “You will be missed” without cracking up?

    Speaking of humor, will anyone dare suggest a memorial library for a practicing illiterate?

  16. If, contrary to pious announcements of politicians on both sides, we really want to end the democracy-destroying effects of gerrymandering, then we must first agree on an inflexible standard by which we will measure this evil, appoint a truly independent commission to administer such standard via the algorithm developed by these children (or better ones as we go along), and test electoral outcomes to be assured that this evil is no more, and if it isn’t, to continuously shore up the holes in the program to end every last vestige of this tool for minority control.

  17. Keep in mind re “gerry”, there is a huge surging new trend of people moving to places where the politics are like theirs. It makes the fix very challenging, especially on a 10-year basis…

  18. JoAnn Green…”State lines and county lines are firmly set; why not Representative district lines?” Because of shifting populations. Every ten years after the Census States may gain or lose a representative based on whether that state gained or lost a certain percentage of their population. In 2010, the state of Utah gained a congressional seat because of the increase of our population ( it went from 3 to 4). Another state had to lose a representative due to a decrease in population. Also, within a state the population may move around. More High school graduates are moving to urban areas from rural areas so the districts need to be adjusted to show those population shifts. This affects not only congressional districts for federal office, but also state legislature districts for State House and Senate races.

  19. The fact that so many districts run unopposed candidates should be the court’s first tip off that the map is unfair and is so lopsided toward one party that the other party figures it has no chance and offers no oppsing candidate at all. Indiana has a majority of other districts that are also very lopsided to assure victory to the GOP but opposing candidates can be found there to challenge them. In both cases, the election result is a foregone conclusion, discouraging actual campaigns and recruitment of top notch Democrats.

    If that isn’t enough to convince Supreme Court Justices, they can look at our raw numbers. Our State Senate has been roughly 40 Republicans and 10 Democrats for years now (with a slight up or down tick occasionally but the Democrats are too few even to break a quorum. Gerrymandering. The House is more than two-to-one Republican where the decade before, the map had a numbr of districts that were very competitive.

    That just goes to show that the map CAN and HAS been changed to make more districts more competitive over the years but not this time and that’s not likely for the next 10 years ether unless something drastic happens.

  20. From my seven decades, Joe McCarthy to Rudy Guliani, of observing politics intently, I’ve gleaned two major drivers of our current crumpled politics:
    Religion, wherein kids are taught to believe without evidence, and
    Self-centered individualism, which hardens the heart and destroys the empathy necessary to even understand the compromses needed to generate governance.

    These are the base elements of American character, well-understood by all the world, but denied by Americans by and large.
    Facebook and Twitter are just superspreaders of the diseases.

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