Fair Redistricting

automatic redistricting map of California

I wasn’t able to attend the Boston Ignite last week, but via the great list of talks on the site, I discovered Brian Olson’s provocative proposal to End Gerrymandering Through Automatic Redistricting. The talk description says:

Lots of states have crazy congressional districts drawn to the benefit of one party. Let a computer do it fairly!

It’s an interesting proposal, not only in and of itself, but because of the way it highlights how computer power can be applied in new ways to many common problems. It seems to me, in fact, that the ongoing development of Web 2.0 will be driven by “aha” moments in which a combination of data mining, collective intelligence, and a little bit of social engineering can provide us with new options as a society. (I mention collective intelligence here because there’s no need for a redistricting algorithm to be based purely on population. Much as search engines use many factors to give the best results, so too could redistricting programs. For example, they could use precinct voting records to adjust for actual propensity to vote in each of the proposed districts.

Of course, it’s fairly naive to think that our representatives want the process to be fair. Whether manual or computer aided, redistricting will tend to be rigged to favor the incumbents. But we as a society can demand otherwise, and over time, perhaps make a difference. As baseball statistician Bill James said: “There will always be people who are ahead of the curve, and people who are behind the curve. But knowledge moves the curve.”