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← Engineering elections without bias | Brian Olson | TEDxCambridge

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  1. If you've ever had the suspicion
    that your vote doesn't really count
  2. and the deck might be stacked
    against you, you might be right.
  3. In many places in this country,
    we don't have a functioning democracy.
  4. People might go to the polls,
  5. but they might not have a real choice
    when they get there.
  6. In 2010, the people of Florida
    were trying to do something about this.
  7. They passed a ballot initiative
    with almost two-thirds of the vote:
  8. a new state constitutional amendment
  9. requiring that districts be fair
    and not biased based on race or party.
  10. It didn't work.
  11. The state legislature sued to try
    and get out of these new requirements,
  12. and in subsequent court battles,
  13. the maps they made were found
    to be racially and partisan biased.
  14. Florida is just one example
  15. of our national problem
    with gerrymandering.
  16. Gerrymandering is when you
    take a few people from one place
  17. and a few people from another place
    and draw a line around them on the map
  18. to create a district
    with some specific demographic goal.
  19. Here's an example world with 25 people:
  20. 60% green people and 40% purple people.
  21. If you split that up into five simple
    districts of five people each,
  22. you can preserve that ratio in the outcome
  23. and have three districts
    won by green people
  24. and two districts won by purple people.
  25. But if you pack enough green people
    into just two districts,
  26. then you can flip that outcome
  27. and wind up with three districts
    where there's a purple majority.
  28. Or you can crack the purple people
    and split them up just right
  29. so that they don't have
    a majority anywhere.
  30. These strategies of packing and cracking
  31. are being used in dozens of districts
    throughout the country.
  32. That bright blue district
    in northeast Florida
  33. was found to be racially biased
  34. because it packs too many
    black people into one district,
  35. diminishing their influence elsewhere.
  36. That was Florida in 2012,
  37. but gerrymandering
    has been going on for a long time,
  38. since at least 1812,
  39. when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry
    signed into law a map
  40. that was drawn into a political cartoon
    as a monstrous, dragonesque salamander,
  41. and thus was born the gerrymander.
  42. But it's gotten a lot worse lately.
  43. The joke is that instead of voters
    picking their politicians,
  44. politicians are picking their voters.
  45. Why is this a problem?
  46. When you have too many seats
  47. that are gerrymandered
    to be safe for one party or another,
  48. the political process
    breaks down in some ways.
  49. I have one personal example.
  50. In 2006, I was a webmaster
  51. for a congressional campaign
    in California.
  52. We were in a district
  53. that was gerrymandered,
    say, for the other party.
  54. And the incumbent in that party
  55. didn't feel the need
    to take part in the campaign
  56. and wouldn't agree
    to show up for any debates.
  57. He just felt he didn't have to.
  58. And our party wouldn't send any help;
    they figured we were a lost cause.
  59. Come election day, the incumbent
    got the expected 60/40 result.
  60. In other places, it's even worse.
  61. In 2014, there were 32 congressional
    districts that went unopposed -
  62. no one else on the ballot.
  63. That's over 20 million Americans
  64. with no effective choice over
    who their representative in Congress is.
  65. In some places,
  66. the incumbent faces a more extreme
    challenger from within their own party.
  67. And whether you have an extremist upstart
    or a long incumbent safe seat,
  68. that politician might not feel the need
    to reach out across the aisle
  69. and compromise on anything
    because they're safe,
  70. and the legislative process
    grinds to a halt,
  71. and voters get more cynical.
  72. What if we could have impartial districts?
  73. What if we defined what a good
    district was mathematically
  74. and didn't let anyone else's
    agenda interfere?
  75. Florida's map might look
    something like this.
  76. About 10 years ago,
  77. computers got powerful enough
    to solve for this kind of map
  78. that follows the legal requirements
    of having equal population per district,
  79. contiguous districts
    that are each all one piece,
  80. and in this case,
    solving for compact districts
  81. that try to tightly represent
    one location or region.
  82. But I didn't know
    it would work when I started.
  83. Previous work in this area
  84. had been on tiny toy maps
    like the one I showed you earlier,
  85. and they didn't think it would scale up
    to a full state worth of data.
  86. But I figured I was a pretty good engineer
    and I'd give it a shot,
  87. and I think it worked out pretty well.
  88. So, when the 2010 census data
    starting coming out,
  89. I set my home computer to work,
  90. and over the next six months,
    it came up with 137 maps
  91. for state legislature
    and congressional districts
  92. all over the country.
  93. And I think the results are pretty good.
  94. Let's see another one.
  95. First, the old way.
  96. North Carolina has also been
    in almost constant legal battles
  97. since their maps came out
    a little over four years ago.
  98. Most recently,
  99. they were thrown out for racial bias
    just as primary season was spinning up.
  100. New maps were hastily drawn up,
  101. and the primary had to be pushed back
    from March until June.
  102. Voters and candidates
    were left in disarray.
  103. That red district in the northeast
  104. reaches into and around
    three other districts.
  105. That pink district in the middle
    pinches down as narrow as possible
  106. while reaching out to grab other areas.
  107. This is nuts.
  108. These are the visual telltales
  109. of districts that have been distorted
    toward some political end.
  110. The opposite of a sprawling,
    non-local gerrymandered map
  111. is a compact map, like this.
  112. I hope you can see the difference.
  113. You can also measure it.
  114. I measure compactness
  115. as the average distance per person
    to the center of their district.
  116. In the old North Carolina map,
    that distance was 38 miles;
  117. in my map, it's 25 miles.
  118. You can measure how sprawling
    and non-local a gerrymandered map is
  119. and how compact a compact map is.
  120. So, it's technically possible.
  121. How's the political situation?
  122. You might expect that there would be
    some resistance to this kind of change,
  123. and there is, but there is
    also some demand for it.
  124. The republican governor of Maryland
    has recently called out for national help
  125. in overturning his state's
    democratic gerrymander.
  126. That is one of the more contorted messes
  127. of tentacled horrors of districts
    I have seen in any map.
  128. (Laughter)
  129. I don't know if this is the best map,
  130. but I submit that it is
    a legally viable map,
  131. without some of the obvious runaround
    and drawbacks of the old map.
  132. There are a lot of states
    with divided government,
  133. with the two parties
    fighting over redistricting.
  134. But this shouldn't be
    something to fight about.
  135. Redistricting should be
    a bureaucratic, boring process,
  136. where you get in new census data,
    you turn the crank,
  137. and you get out new maps
    for the next 10 years.
  138. In the last few years,
  139. California, Arizona, Ohio, and Florida
    have passed reform of one kind or another.
  140. That shows that it's possible.
  141. Those reforms might not be perfect,
    and they might still need some tinkering,
  142. but we can do it.
  143. This is technically possible.
  144. Open-source software, free and verifiable,
  145. running on home computers
    that anyone can use
  146. can solve for these kinds
    of impartial maps,
  147. and the results are pretty good.
  148. This is politically possible.
  149. People want reform -
    even some elected officials want it.
  150. And the legal mechanisms are achievable.
  151. If we could have a change now,
  152. we could have a big effect
    on the future of our political process.
  153. If reform comes to enough places,
  154. enough states,
  155. we might even be able
    to get a national standard.
  156. And a national standard might let us
    really hold up our core value
  157. of equal protection under the law for all.
  158. (Applause)