Wanted: Honest Algorithms For Voter Redistricting - InformationWeek
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User Rank: Author
8/7/2014 | 3:00:58 PM
Using redistricting optimizing algorithms for good rather than evil
Redistricting reform shouldn't be a partisan issue. As an admitted lefty, I once gave a speech about the Florida redistricting initiative to a Toastmasters group that included a Tea Party enthusiast, who told me my message made perfect sense to him. (Whether he later decided to vote against it for partisan reasons, I don't know).

What I'm arguing for here is an objective rule, clear enough to be expressed in software, that works the same way whether your favored party is in power or not. Is that too much to ask?
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User Rank: Strategist
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: Author
8/7/2014 | 5:58:09 PM
What about existing boundaries, like towns and counties?
Political gamesmanship is excessive on both sides of the aisle. Just like the tax code, election structures need to be greatly simplified and stick with real boundaries, not demographic engineering zones.
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User Rank: Author
8/7/2014 | 6:00:07 PM
Re: What about existing boundaries, like town and counties?
Honestly, I don't even like the minority representation thing. Every elected official should have to get elected under his or her own power.
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User Rank: Ninja
8/8/2014 | 12:04:18 AM
Re: What about existing boundaries, like town and counties?
I live in Massachusetts, where gerrymandering was invented by Governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812. The county barriers hereabouts are at least as absurd as the Florida congressional districts. Norfolk County, where I live, isn't even contiguous, and I have to go out to Elvis County when jury duty turns up. But, at least it's human malfeasance; I hope they never turn these sorts of decisions over to computers.
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User Rank: Author
8/8/2014 | 9:15:43 AM
Re: What about existing boundaries, like town and counties?
@Gary_El, at least with humans in charge, you have someone to blame.
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User Rank: Moderator
8/8/2014 | 9:53:38 AM
Re: What about existing boundaries, like town and counties?
The problem with using algorithms (is that music the ex-VP dances to - sorry, had to slip that in) is they can be still manipulated, but that manipulation will be hidden.  You can never get the politics out of re-districting.  What needs to be done is find out a way to have the process as tranparent as possible.  The issue/requirement of having race-based districts enters into this (the virtue of which is a subject of debate, but not here on an IT forum), so you will have to have some sort of human intervention will be necessary.

The concept of getting the element of human intervention out of this process is nice, but the devil will be in the details, and those details occur whether you use a computer algorithm, or have people use a dry erase board to do it.
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User Rank: Author
8/8/2014 | 10:40:47 AM
Re: What about existing boundaries, like town and counties?
If you start with a computation that gives you a map of compact districts, aligned with natural and city / county borders where possible -- which is entirely possible to reduce to an algorithm -- and try to stick to that as much as possible, I think that would be a great start.
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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: Strategist
8/8/2014 | 10:28:09 AM
The biggest issue with such a solution, at least until early 2017, wouldn't be the politicians whose interest might be harmed.  It would be the Attorney General of the United States.

Under Eric Holder, nothing ever would be allowed that might under any conceivable (and many inconceivable) circumstance reduce by a scintilla the representation of minoriities.  Since many of the districts that reliably send minority Representatives to congress are the most Gerrymandered (I'll give you Texas 19, home of "Queen" Sheila Jackson-Lee as an irrefutable example), any attempt to rationalize them would result in an immediate protest.  The proposal would be declared in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the proposer would be declared an evil racist.

I'll also point out that he who controls the algorithms would weild significant powe, but in a more disguised way.  Computer modeling is only as good as the model and the data you feed it, and if you get to control the model, you can tweak it to give pretty much any results you want.  Sorry, but I think that one can go very wrong placing too much faith in 'honest' technocrats.
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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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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: 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
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: Strategist
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: 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: 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: Strategist
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: Strategist
9/27/2015 | 11:33:06 AM
Re: here is an honest algorithm for voter redistricting
To respond to some concerns about automated redistrcting.

* automated redistricting provides better transparency

** both humans and computers use algorithms.  the human mind is not transparent, but source code is. (if you can read it.) With a computer program, everyone (who has decent knowledge of computer programming) can read exactly how the map was designed, and know that that is precisely how it was designed.  They don't have to take someone's word for it.  They can compile and run the code themselves.

** open review and wide-availability of tools to analyze a proposal provide transparency regardless of who draws it.  free and open source automated redistrictng software, in addition to enabling transparency at the source code level, enables transparency by proiding tools to everyone to analyze the end products.

* automated redistricting creates better plans

And finally I created a website for my free and open source automated redistricting program.  On it you can see a side-by-side comparison of the result of automated redistricting vs the current hand-drawn maps:

http://autoredistrict.org/comparison.php

As you can see, the automated ones are way better.  This should come as no surprise, since the automated redistricting algorithm was able to analyze and compare thousands more proposals to find the best one.

And David,  I would LOVE to have an article in InformationWeek about my software. ( http://autoredistrict.org ) I'll be getting one in http://urbanmilwaukee.com/ shortly (this coming week or so), but that's a small publication. My contact info is on the website.

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