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Using Gerrymandering Technology to Fight Gerrymandering

Larry Press

In 1991, eight high-level Soviet officials attempted a coup that failed after two days. During those two days, citizen journalists and activists used Usenet newsgroups to carry traffic into, out of and within Russia (70 cities). News spread and protests were organized in Russia. In the west, we saw images of Boris Yeltsin speaking to demonstrators while standing on top of a tank and the Russians saw that we were aware of and reporting on the coup.

The coup was defeated, democracy prevailed, and we naively concluded that computer networks were a tool for democracy, political transparency, freedom of speech, etc. We also believed dictators would face a dilemma — having to accept democratic information sharing in order to reap the economic and social benefits of the Internet.

Today it is clear that we naively overlooked the fact that the Internet is a useful tool for dictators as well as Democrats. We have seen it used by terrorists to target rockets and for censorship, propaganda, surveillance and lying.

Another anti-democratic political practice, gerrymandering — defining voting districts to favor one party or candidate — is in the news because a panel of federal judges has ordered North Carolina to redraw its gerrymandered congressional map.

The panel struck down North Carolina's congressional map, saying it was unconstitutional because it violates the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection. Judge James A. Wynn Jr., in a biting 191-page opinion, said that Republicans in the North Carolina legislature had been "motivated by invidious partisan intent" as they carried out their obligation in 2016 to divide the state into 13 congressional districts, 10 of which are held by Republicans.

The ruling will be appealed directly to the Supreme Court, which is also hearing Wisconsin and Maryland gerrymandering cases. The Wisconsin case is similar to South Carolina's, which is based on the 14th amendment, challenges the state district map and is pro-Democratic while the Maryland case challenges the redrawing of a single district, is based on the 1st Amendment and is pro-Republican.

Gerrymandering is not new — Patrick Henry tried to defeat James Madison in 1788 by drawing an anti-federalist district. He failed because he did not have good data and computers, but today's politicians have geographic information system software and the data they need to automate efficient, precise gerrymandering.

The Republican party has used Internet-enabled gerrymandering to gain a congressional advantage. The Democratic party might be tempted to fight fire with fire, but that would be slow and undemocratic.

The North Carolina judicial panel has a better solution. They gave the legislature until January 24 to present a "remedial plan," and the court will institute its own map if it finds the new district lines unsatisfactory. If that happens, the court can use use the same sorts of tools and data that have been used to produce gerrymandered districts. Instead of using the technology to optimize in favor of either party, they will seek maps that equalize district populations, minimize geographic perimeters, respect natural boundaries like rivers, maximize racial diversity, etc. In general, courts are more likely to be non-partisan than legislatures.

As I said at the start, the Internet is a tool that can be used by good guys and bad guys.

Update, Jan 19, 2018:

The U. S. Supreme Court granted a stay in the court order requiring North Carolina lawmakers to produce a revised congressional voting map within two weeks. This temporary delay probably means the current map will be used in the 2018 election.

In a related case, the Pennsylvania state supreme court is currently hearing a gerrymandering case which could result in the redrawing of their district map in time for the 2018 election.

Republicans won 13 of Pennsylvania's 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016 in spite of the fact that Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by only 44,292 (.75%) votes.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.comVisit Page
Related topics: Internet Governance
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