Drawn Together: Can Math Nerds Beat Gerrymandering?

How to spot a gerrymandered congressional district.

Illinois map: National Atlas, Texas map: Center for Range Voting

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Read also: Can one Democrat hell-bent on revenge reverse Tom DeLay’s redistricting power grab?

The art of drawing congressional districts to benefit one party or another goes back to the earliest days of the republic. Detailed census and election data have made it even easier to construct electorates with an all-but-guaranteed political leaning. You can usually spot a gerrymandered district by its wacky boundaries. Or you can use this formula (PDF), developed by John Mackenzie, a professor of resource economics and geographic information systems at the University of Delaware:

Map

 

Mackenzie’s formula gives lower gerrymandering scores to districts with a low perimeter-to-area ratio (like the entire state of Wyoming). Higher scores go to irregularly shaped districts, like Illinois’ pincer-like 4th district (above).

The formula doesn’t take into account how a district got its odd contours. Take North Carolina’s 12th, which has the country’s third-highest gerrymandering score. Drawn as a majority-black district in 1992, the snaking “I-85 district” used to be barely wider than the interstate in some places. After being found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, it was redrawn Texas in 1997 with a slight white plurality. But it’s kept its meandering shape, and its representative—Rep. Mel Watt, a black Democrat.

So what might an ungerrymandered nation look like? Mathematician Warren D. Smith, cofounder of RangeVoting.org, has used an algorithm to redraw every state’s districts in a geometrically precise manner that ignores party lines (left). Would his solution shake up the partisan or racial composition of Congress? Who knows. But it sure would look pretty.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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