Open Government
8/7/2014
02:05 PM
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# Wanted: Honest Algorithms For Voter Redistricting

Why can't a simple formula replace the politically charged gerrymandering that's skewing our election processes?
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Hypothetical compact Florida Congressional districts (source: bdistricting.com)

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User Rank: Apprentice
4/5/2015 | 12:38:11 PM
Re: Using redistricting optimizing algorithms for good rather than evil
If you are asking for just 1 rule, then yes, it is too much to ask.  It cannot be reduced to a single rule.   It can, however, be reduced to a small handful of rules.  Such as:

Practicalitly rules

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1. Contiguency (aka connectedness)

2. compactness (harder to represent a squiggly district)

3. equal population (this is NOT a fairness criteria - its so there isn't undue burden on the representative.)

Fairness rules

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4. proportional representation (the composition of those elected should mirror that of the voters)

5. equal voting power balance. (each person's vote should have about the same impact on the final composition of the elected body)

So then yes, there are FIVE simple rules for an algorithm.  But this is pretty much a minimal set - you can't remove one and still have a good result. A fuller description of these rules is availalbe here (forgive the messiness / incompleteness - its a bit of a work in progress)   https://github.com/happyjack27/autoredistrict/blob/master/tutorials/tutorial_text.txt

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User Rank: Apprentice
4/5/2015 | 12:22:21 PM
He who writes the algorithm does hold all the power - as far as people go.  But the data shares a lot of the power.  Nonetheless, it is not misplaced.  data + algorihtm = output.  quite simple.  if there is a third variable, it's random variation.

The question is then, who should write the algorihtm, and/or what should the algorithm be?

This is why the code must be open-source, and people qualified in evaluating the algorithm, such as people who are good at math, shoudl be involved.  And two criteria must be included in the algorithm: proportional representation and voting power balance.

In any case, make no mistake: the algorithm is boss.
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User Rank: Apprentice
4/5/2015 | 12:14:09 PM
Occam'z Razor: "The simplest explanation is most likely correct."  Key word here: "likely".  If we were, for example, to only use the criteria of equal population, and then select a map at random from all the possible permutations, and then if it doesn't meet that throw it out and re-pick, until we get one that meets that, the map that we end up with will, due to the law of large numbers, have most districts be proportioned in about the same way as the entire state.  That is, if the total popular vote is about 60% for one party, then the individual districts will all be about 60% for that party, too. (since as the sample size N gets larger, it regresses towards the population mean, with smaller and smaller variance, and since we're counting people, N is very large.)  So in almost all districts, the majority vote will be for the party that has the majority in the total population.  Which means that party will get almost 100% of the seats.  Even though they only got 60% of the popular vote.
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User Rank: Apprentice
4/5/2015 | 11:53:34 AM
here is an honest algorithm for voter redistricting
In my spare time i've been working on an algorithm to do fair re-districting, fully automated.   The full source code (along with an executable) is available here: https://github.com/happyjack27/autoredistrict  basically it uses the genetic algorithm to optimize 5 criteria: compactness, equal population, connectedness, proportional representation, and voting power balance.
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User Rank: Ninja
8/9/2014 | 11:01:34 AM
Re: Piano Teacher Redistricted Better than Pennsylvania Legislature
Good spot - actually I think the reason of the dilemma is that, the higher the level of the people, the more complicated the matter becomes.:-) Even the simple things get complicated when it comes to politians.:-)
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User Rank: Apprentice
8/8/2014 | 1:27:10 PM
Re: What about existing boundaries, like town and counties?
Almost all of what I'm reading and your comment especially is soooo true.  Here in Alabama, the majority Repubs are doing what the Dems did before as far as redistricting.  And the Repubs could easily justify it to the Feds for Feb approval as the minority race Dem incumbents remained almost untouched, though majority race Dems lost their "areas" or districts.  This leads to favorable conditions for crony politicians it appears.

Based on the above, I believe this is driving the so-called polarization in Congress ... because the districts are so polarized.  Candidates that make it to congress have little incentive (or perhaps the will or the mandate) to compromise for an 80% favorable result.
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User Rank: Author
8/8/2014 | 12:15:54 PM
In the Florida case, it seems the judge determined that even distribution of voters across districts ("fairness") trumped any bias toward minority representation that might be allowed under the Voting Rights Act. Hell, I'm not a lawyer. I just know that the stated rules of the game in Florida read like a fairly simple algorithm - I think people needlessly overcomplicated it.
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User Rank: Strategist
8/8/2014 | 11:59:35 AM
I know straw men are easier to kill than the real thing, but I dont' believe I used the phrase 'all the power.'  While I'll posit that a district as egregious as either of our examples would be obvious, I think you would have to allow that the move of a neighborhood here or there can significantly change the makeup of a district, and could be very hard to spot.  One would assume that any such program would keep state and local (city, county,school) districts together as much as possilbe, otherwise you would have multiple districts within a precienct, or multiple local jurisdictins, and either of those would cause a nearly unsurmountable problem for the local voting authorities.

And if you believe that the actual source code and raw data for any redistricting program would be available to the public, I'd ask you to do a little research on VA waiting lists, or the Obamacare web site.  The gubmint is made up of people, and contrary to the hopes and wishes of people who believe that it is full of unbiased technocrats who have only the good of the people in their minds and hearts, they are just as likely to lie, cheat, and manipulate as the denizens of any evil mulitnational corporation.  Just ask Lois Lerner...

But all that is moot anyway. No such scheme could never make it past the Voting Rights Act as currently written and enforced since it would dilute minority representation dramatically. You're not against the Voting Rights Act, are you?
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User Rank: Moderator
8/8/2014 | 10:54:09 AM
Piano Teacher Redistricted Better than Pennsylvania Legislature
An average citizen with low-tech tools did a better job of redistricting than the politicians.  Gee, what a surprise.  See one of many stories about Amanda Holt here:

http://www.pennlive.com/opinion/2012/12/amanda_holt_is_pennsylvanias_citizen_activist_of_the_year.html

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User Rank: Author
8/8/2014 | 10:44:22 AM
The concern about he who writes the algorithm holding all the power seems misplaced to me. As long as the same formula is applied to every district, there's no way you can come up with something like Florida's 5th Congressional district. Manipulation of the system becomes a lot more obvious, if every other district is compact and one or two are way out of whack.
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