Engineering Elections Without Bias | Brian Olson | TEDxCambridge


Translator: Lisa Thompson
Reviewer: Mirjana Čutura If you’ve ever had the suspicion
that your vote doesn’t really count and the deck might be stacked
against you, you might be right. In many places in this country,
we don’t have a functioning democracy. People might go to the polls, but they might not have a real choice
when they get there. In 2010, the people of Florida
were trying to do something about this. They passed a ballot initiative
with almost two-thirds of the vote: a new state constitutional amendment requiring that districts be fair
and not biased based on race or party. It didn’t work. The state legislature sued to try
and get out of these new requirements, and in subsequent court battles, the maps they made were found
to be racially and partisan biased. Florida is just one example of our national problem
with gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is when you
take a few people from one place and a few people from another place
and draw a line around them on the map to create a district
with some specific demographic goal. Here’s an example world with 25 people: 60% green people and 40% purple people. If you split that up into five simple
districts of five people each, you can preserve that ratio in the outcome and have three districts
won by green people and two districts won by purple people. But if you pack enough green people
into just two districts, then you can flip that outcome and wind up with three districts
where there’s a purple majority. Or you can crack the purple people
and split them up just right so that they don’t have
a majority anywhere. These strategies of packing and cracking are being used in dozens of districts
throughout the country. That bright blue district
in northeast Florida was found to be racially biased because it packs too many
black people into one district, diminishing their influence elsewhere. That was Florida in 2012, but gerrymandering
has been going on for a long time, since at least 1812, when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry
signed into law a map that was drawn into a political cartoon
as a monstrous, dragonesque salamander, and thus was born the gerrymander. But it’s gotten a lot worse lately. The joke is that instead of voters
picking their politicians, politicians are picking their voters. Why is this a problem? When you have too many seats that are gerrymandered
to be safe for one party or another, the political process
breaks down in some ways. I have one personal example. In 2006, I was a webmaster for a congressional campaign
in California. We were in a district that was gerrymandered,
say, for the other party. And the incumbent in that party didn’t feel the need
to take part in the campaign and wouldn’t agree
to show up for any debates. He just felt he didn’t have to. And our party wouldn’t send any help;
they figured we were a lost cause. Come election day, the incumbent
got the expected 60/40 result. In other places, it’s even worse. In 2014, there were 32 congressional
districts that went unopposed – no one else on the ballot. That’s over 20 million Americans with no effective choice over
who their representative in Congress is. In some places, the incumbent faces a more extreme
challenger from within their own party. And whether you have an extremist upstart
or a long incumbent safe seat, that politician might not feel the need
to reach out across the aisle and compromise on anything
because they’re safe, and the legislative process
grinds to a halt, and voters get more cynical. What if we could have impartial districts? What if we defined what a good
district was mathematically and didn’t let anyone else’s
agenda interfere? Florida’s map might look
something like this. About 10 years ago, computers got powerful enough
to solve for this kind of map that follows the legal requirements
of having equal population per district, contiguous districts
that are each all one piece, and in this case,
solving for compact districts that try to tightly represent
one location or region. But I didn’t know
it would work when I started. Previous work in this area had been on tiny toy maps
like the one I showed you earlier, and they didn’t think it would scale up
to a full state worth of data. But I figured I was a pretty good engineer
and I’d give it a shot, and I think it worked out pretty well. So, when the 2010 census data
starting coming out, I set my home computer to work, and over the next six months,
it came up with 137 maps for state legislature
and congressional districts all over the country. And I think the results are pretty good. Let’s see another one. First, the old way. North Carolina has also been
in almost constant legal battles since their maps came out
a little over four years ago. Most recently, they were thrown out for racial bias
just as primary season was spinning up. New maps were hastily drawn up, and the primary had to be pushed back
from March until June. Voters and candidates
were left in disarray. That red district in the northeast reaches into and around
three other districts. That pink district in the middle
pinches down as narrow as possible while reaching out to grab other areas. This is nuts. These are the visual telltales of districts that have been distorted
toward some political end. The opposite of a sprawling,
non-local gerrymandered map is a compact map, like this. I hope you can see the difference. You can also measure it. I measure compactness as the average distance per person
to the center of their district. In the old North Carolina map,
that distance was 38 miles; in my map, it’s 25 miles. You can measure how sprawling
and non-local a gerrymandered map is and how compact a compact map is. So, it’s technically possible. How’s the political situation? You might expect that there would be
some resistance to this kind of change, and there is, but there is
also some demand for it. The republican governor of Maryland
has recently called out for national help in overturning his state’s
democratic gerrymander. That is one of the more contorted messes of tentacled horrors of districts
I have seen in any map. (Laughter) I don’t know if this is the best map, but I submit that it is
a legally viable map, without some of the obvious runaround
and drawbacks of the old map. There are a lot of states
with divided government, with the two parties
fighting over redistricting. But this shouldn’t be
something to fight about. Redistricting should be
a bureaucratic, boring process, where you get in new census data,
you turn the crank, and you get out new maps
for the next 10 years. In the last few years, California, Arizona, Ohio, and Florida
have passed reform of one kind or another. That shows that it’s possible. Those reforms might not be perfect,
and they might still need some tinkering, but we can do it. This is technically possible. Open-source software, free and verifiable, running on home computers
that anyone can use can solve for these kinds
of impartial maps, and the results are pretty good. This is politically possible. People want reform –
even some elected officials want it. And the legal mechanisms are achievable. If we could have a change now, we could have a big effect
on the future of our political process. If reform comes to enough places, enough states, we might even be able
to get a national standard. And a national standard might let us
really hold up our core value of equal protection under the law for all. (Applause)

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