Gerrymandering Can Be Fixed With Local Solutions

The Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments this week about altering voting districts to gain entrenched political advantage. A couple of Eugene’s high-tech entrepreneurs could offer more elegant solutions to the problem.

The Gill v. Whitford case came to the court from Wisconsin, and its challengers hope they have delivered what Justice Samuel Alito called the “Rosetta Stone” that will define excessive gerrymandering without drawing the court into what they have deemed to be a political and partisan arena.

In 2004, the last time the court looked at the issue, Justice Anthony Kennedy signaled in no uncertain terms that he was looking for a formula that could be applied fairly to both sides, based on statistics that wouldn’t be debatable by either side.

The challengers to Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled 2011 redistricting map hope they have provided that. Their case reveals a so-called “efficiency gap” between political parties. Using Wisconsin’s partisan map, the majority of voters in 2012 chose Democrats, but Republicans have won almost 60 percent of the elections. Votes for Republicans resulted in more electoral success than votes for Democrats, creating an “efficiency gap.”

Justices don’t want to wade into political waters, for fear that they won’t have a way out. Gerrymandering is undeniably a political and legislative issue, but it’s one that legislators have no reason to address.

“Politicians are never going to fix gerrymandering,” said Paul Smith during oral arguments on Tuesday. “They like gerrymandering.” But where can the line be drawn, so that redistricting planners know in advance how much is too much?

That’s where Matt Ginsberg could help. Local resident Ginsberg is a certified math wonk. His local ventures have helped military contractors deliver “just in time” products being procured. BMW licensed his software to tell its drivers when a red light may slow their commute. Ginsberg and his son have even developed algorithms that predict whether a basketball player’s shot will be good, as soon as the shot leaves the hand.

The plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case have provided a mathematical formula. But where they rely on algebra, Ginsberg and his colleague would use geometry.

Four years ago, on these pages, Ginsberg wrote, “Stopping gerrymandering is easy. … All we have to do is require that congressional districts be “normal” shapes. And here’s a definition of normal, provided by a colleague of mine: All congressional districts should be convex where possible. … Take any two points in the district and connect them by a line. The entire line must be in the district.” He added a couple of caveats, but those exceptions are clear and indisputable, which is what the justices have said they require.

If the justices believe that any mathematical formula could be seen as judicial meddling into political matters, another of Eugene’s high-tech entrepreneurs has another solution that would never involve the courts directly. Instead, the political forces that favor gerrymandered districts could be kept in check by opposing commercial interests.

Eimar Boesjes and his company, Moonshadow Mobile, provide software technology for companies that collect voter data. Many states provide voter history and party affiliation records for a nominal charge. Other states are more restrictive.

After the 2010 Census, Moonshadow created a product, aptly called “Borderline,” that allowed qualified users to move district lines and instantly see the results in the voter counts and political party affiliations for all new districts. Borderline demonstrates how easy it is to manipulate district lines to give an advantage to one party over the other.

The databases are not to be used for commercial purposes, but why not? What if the same package could be purchased by real estate professionals?

Why limit gerrymandering’s mischief-makers to the political parties and candidates? An industrious Realtor could use a product like Borderline to identify a few thousand reliably partisan residents who could move just a few blocks to vote in a different district, without having to change where they grocery shop.

Redistricting occurs only after each decennial census, but we move whenever we please. Voters could then fix their “efficiency gap” themselves, by moving to where their vote would be more valuable.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.