Computers for Congress


By Adam Chiara | January 18, 2018 Need to draw congressional districts? There’s an app for that. Or at least there should be.

In 2020, states will have to redistrict congressional maps again. And whether it’s Democrats or Republicans doing the carving, gerrymandering will certainly be involved.

But what if we could take the politics out of redistricting? What if we let a computer determine the most fair congressional lines?

Sound too sci-fi? It shouldn’t. It’s already happening. Take a look at Gill v. Whitford, a case currently being decided by the Supreme Court.

The case examines whether the Wisconsin State Assembly districts were drawn constitutionally. There is just about an even split of Democrats and Republicans in Wisconsin, yet Republicans hold 65 percent of the seats in the state assembly. To put this into context, this majority is a larger one than Republican legislators have in some conservative states, including Texas and Kentucky.

As the New York Times reported, “Wisconsin’s Republican legislators, after their victory in the census year of 2010, tried out map after map, tweak after tweak. They ran each potential map through computer algorithms that tested its performance in a wide range of political climates. The map they adopted is precisely engineered to assure Republican control in all but the most extreme circumstances.”

For those who will argue that we should not trust our politics to an algorithm, Wisconsin proves that not only does that technology already exist, but that it is already being taken advantage of. The real debate people should be having is how to appropriately harness this power to strengthen democracy.

So let me take a stab at it. States could create their own commissions that would come up with the criteria for determining who belongs within a congressional district. The commission could be made of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, academics, and any other individuals who the state deems appropriate. The point is that the commission will have to work together, compromise, and agree on a standard that would best serve each district.

Anything from party affiliation, income, racial identity, age, education level could be considered — whatever that state’s commission believes makes sense should be inputted into the algorithm. Using that agreed upon standard of demographics, a program will create the district maps. Those are the new lines. No tweaking, no redoing the program specifications, no anything. What the computer turns out is the final word.

Of course, I know the process I just outlined is not perfect, and I’m sure there are ways to improve it. But the fundamental concept is that a politically independent group determines what a fair district would look like, and a computer program then draws those maps using that information.

In other words, use human awareness to set the parameters, then take human competition out of the equation, and we may just come up with a logical system for redistricting.

Adam Chiara is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Hartford. He has worked as a legislative aide in the Connecticut General Assembly, as a journalist, and in PR. He's on Twitter at @AdamChiara.