Computer algorithms have been used to make gerrymandering– a major problem in Texas — more partisan than ever. But they could also be used to make the redistricting process fairer.
Gerrymandering involves drawing political district lines purposefully to favor one party. It’s the process of politicians picking their voters instead of voters picking their politicians. Under the GOP, Texas’ district lines have been drawn in ways that federal courts have repeatedly found to be racially discriminatory. Some districts are so ridiculously drawn that one company makes jewelry out of them.
Engineering district lines dates back centuries, and advances in technology have taken the drawing process to new heights. Computer algorithms can now sift through vast quantities of data that would be incomprehensible to humans, and use that data to identify voting patterns. This in turn allows gerrymandering to be far more precise and scientific.
Recently, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan warned of the risks that technology posed to American democracy in her dissent in a gerrymandering-related case.
“Gerrymanders will only get worse (or depending on your perspective, better) as time goes on—as data becomes ever more fine-grained and data analysis techniques continue to improve,” she wrote. What was possible with paper and pen—or even with Windows 95—doesn’t hold a candle (or an LED bulb?) to what will become possible with developments like machine learning.” Machine learning in this case refers to the computer-generated algorithms.
The solution may be to fight fire with fire. Algorithms today have advanced to the point where they can do the redistricting themselves, and do so in a way that is more fair and less partisan if humans did it. “Bdistricting,” for instance, is an algorithm that can draw neat geometric shapes that reflect neighborhood boundaries rather than create squiggly, nonsensical lines that are common in gerrymandering. And “Auto-Redistrict” designs districts based on equality, minimizing differences like race and political leaning.
The issue of redistricting will be an important one in Texas in 2021. Democrats are currently vying to flip the Texas House and, if successful, they will be in charge of undoing the heavily gerrymandered districts across the state. While not a panacea, technology can help bring social justice to the redistricting process.
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