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Possible Solutions to Pennsylvania’s Gerrymandering Conundrum

Research from Carnegie Mellon University inspires proposed protocols to end issue

By: Kimberly Keagy, Point Park News Service:  

Carnegie Mellon Researcher Alan Frieze explains the idea behind Markhov chains. Photo by: Kimberly Keagy, Point Park News Service.

When Carnegie Mellon University mathematician Alan Frieze started thinking about why half the state voted Democrat, he wondered why the Democrats only had 5 seats in Congress? This prompted him to look into a more fair way of drawing districts.

He and fellow professor Wesley Pegden eventually sought to prove that the districts in the  Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are rife with “gerrymandering,” building a scientific basis for drawing districts that excised politics.

Gerrymandering, or the manipulation of the drawing of district lines, first occurred in 1812 when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry backed a redistricting plan favoring his party creating one district that looked like a salamander.

Frieze and Pegden have not only proved that the way Pennsylvania draws districts — which is the subject of two Pennsylvania lawsuits — is unfairly drawing district lines. Their theorem and proposal protocol to end gerrymandering is being considered as a way to settle the lawsuits related to this issue.

“Our theorem proves that current districting is biased,” Frieze said.

David Thornburgh, President, and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan advocacy group for better government, has found in a poll that gerrymandering today is the principal issue facing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Recently, the state’s highest court ordered the Commonwealth Court to issue findings of fact and conclusion by Dec. 31 in the suit filed by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and independent citizens.

“There are three times as many people concerned in the poll about the issue than schools. I think gerrymandering is now the tip of the spear,” Thornburgh said.

Thornburgh said, gerrymandering contributes to “a higher partisan divide, gridlock in legislation, and bewilders citizens about the actual politicians who represent them.”

Suzanne Broughton, former president of the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh, Inc. and of Fair Districts PA advocacy groups for gerrymandering, is one of the many citizens who are concerned about gerrymandering.

“Congress and the state legislatures are a part of the big problem, not just the presidency,” said Broughton.  

According to an analysis based on a new mathematical theorem on bias involving Markov chains developed by CMU and University of Pittsburgh researchers, Pennsylvania’s congressional district maps are almost certainly the result of gerrymandering.

“When I started thinking about this you realize there’s something wrong when half the state votes democrat and yet they only get 5 seats. You think that maybe that the districting that has been selected may be biased, just maybe,” Frieze said.

Frieze, Pegden and Maria Chikina, a University of Pittsburgh professor, provided a mathematical theorem to demonstrate bias in the congressional districting maps of the state of Pennsylvania.

Frieze said they began with a current congressional districts map and applied a computer simulation to make a series of small changes along district boundaries to ensure fair results to compare congressional districts against Republican and Democratic registration bases.

Professor Ariel Procaccia, worked alongside Pegden to create a protocol for developing the districts fairly.

Ariel Procaccia. Photo by: Kimberly Keagy, Point Park News Service.

“One of my passions is defining algorithms that people perceive as fair,” Procaccia said.

Procaccia and Pegden’s proposed protocol, is similar to the principle of cutting a cake, one member cuts the piece of cake while the other picks their favorite piece — to draw district boundaries create a fair outcome for both parties.

An approach that requires one party to divide the state into districts, each with the same number of votes. The other party would re-map the remaining districts as it likes. The first party then selects a new district to alter in turn. The parties would take turns keeping some boundaries and redrawing others until the map is complete, which would take 17 cycles for the case of Pennsylvania.

“The idea is not to change the way parties perceive their goals [the districts], just to set up the interaction in which the outcome is fair,” Procaccia said.

Procaccia is concerned that part of the problem is getting “truly independent voters” from politics to serve on the committee. The proposal’s foundation is based upon fair division where resources are divided equally between rival interests.

“The idea is to move away from the current situation where just one party controls the state legislature and basically decides how the redistricting would look like,” Procaccia said.

“The idea is to move away from the current situation where just one party controls the state legislature and basically decides how the redistricting would look like,” Ariel Procaccia said.

Procaccia said the state’s balance is not only due to gerrymandering but also the fact that “Democrats are more concentrated in cities” which limits the mapmaker’s ability to balance geographical districts.

However, Fair Districts of Allegheny County and the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh says the issue of the CMU professors protocol does not, “solve the problem of incumbency protection” where politicians cut deals with one another to win extra party seats or target particular holders of office to stay in power.

The evolution map of the congressional district 12 from 1962-2011. Source: Fair Districts PA.

“That does nothing for the average citizen who wants to hold them accountable and listen to our concerns if they know they’re going to get re-elected,”  said Kitsy McNulty local leader of Fair Districts of Allegheny County.

Kitsy McNulty local leader of Fair Districts of Allegheny County. Photo by: Kimberly Keagy , Point Park News Service.

Broughton argues someone still has to be the deciding factor in selecting to do it using technology which is what CMU has proposed.

“What the CMU people have done has developed a way to do it on the computer. But someone has to decide to do it that way and that would be the independent commission jobs is to figure out how to do it,” Broughton said.

Nathan Firestone J.D., Point Park University political science professor, said he agrees with Fair Districts and the League of Women Voters.

“America has the only election system in the world where the candidates are appointed by politicians so it is never independent,” Firestone said.

A different proposal launched by the Committee of Seventy is a nonpartisan, statewide mapping competition, Draw the Line, that would put the same digital tools used by political pros into the hands of Pennsylvania’s voters and students to draw the commonwealth’s electoral boundaries.

“We want people to have hands-on experience deciding how Pennsylvania should be represented,” Thornburgh said.

Amanda Holt, a piano teacher, and graphic designer inspired the contest. She not only drew a better map but also contested the map drawn by the politicians in front the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court ruled in her favor.

“She’s an example of average people who if they want to put some effort into it, and if they have some software to help, draw better maps,” said McNulty.

The Allegheny County Council passed a motion in support of fair redistricting 10-4 in November.

Paul Klein, District 11 Allegheny County council representative believes an independent bipartisan commission would best serve the state.

“I think the message we ought to send to people is we would like to– as best we can–take politics out of the process. And I think appointing an independent bipartisan commission is a way to get closer to that,” Klein said.

Klein believes the Republican persuasion of the council, who opposed the motion to support, have concerns about the technical details.

“The Republicans are hesitant because they don’t know what it will look like at the end in terms of how the commission will be formed, and the appointment of commission members,” Klein said.

According to Klein, the motion of support “has a great deal of commonality” with other municipalities across the state.

“I think that they [Fair Districts] feel like that is not a healthy system, those are things that they wanted to structurally take aim at and felt that creating this new model would mitigate or address them in some way,” Klein said.

With Allegheny County Council behind the motion of redistricting, Fair Districts are introducing two pieces bipartisan legislation, House Bill 722 and Senate Bill 22, which would change the action of how the districts are drawn for the future.

“The bills deal with changing the process; there’s no guarantee that the content could come out perfectly, but they could still draw districts that should be,” Broughton said.

McNulty said the two bills are relatively the same. They are both calling for a citizen’s commission to draw the lines.

“There would be 11 people on the commission, 4 Republicans,4 Democrats, and 3 people independent of political parties,” McNulty said.

The legislation has to be passed before next year but Fair Districts say they will keep pushing for change.

“We can always live to fight another day and we will,” McNulty said.

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