Saturday, February 10, 2018

Redistricting as 8th grade math exercise


I'm not the only person in my family who is interested in the mysteries of gerrymandering. My cousin Jon Kimmel teaches 8th grade math at Westtown School in the Philadelphia suburbs. The area is ground zero for a legal fight over a Republican Congressional district map which the state Supreme Court has ruled is “clearly, plainly, and palpably” in violation of Pennsylvania's state constitution. The GOPer map achieved its goal:

In 2012, Democrats won 51 percent of the statewide popular U.S. House vote but only 5 out of 18 House seats.

But that's not what Kimmel put in front of his students. Instead, when they saw the odd shapes of Congressional districts in their area, they were curious how they came to be drawn that way. Here's what came next from an article in the Daily Local.

Kimmel’s eighth-grade math students ... had been studying the Census and how it relates to redistricting and, in some modern cases, the unconstitutional process of gerrymandering.

“My students, getting their first taste (of the subject), were amazed at the audacity, flabbergasted at what this meant about democracy, and more than a little amused at the stupidity of adults,” Kimmel wrote in an essay recently.

Someone wondered whether the class itself could do as well, or even better. ... In a little over two weeks of class time, indeed, the group of eighth graders did do a better job than the Legislature, he said. ... “The students learned how their mathematical skills, a sense of fair play, and some common sense could point the way to solving some of the problems we as a society face,” he added.

The students agreed.

“I had a lot of fun doing this,” said Alex McVickar, a West Vincent resident in the first year at Westtown. “I think we all collectively learned that it isn’t too hard to redistrict a single state. It may take some time, but the districts don’t need to be as preposterous as they are now. Also, I personally never realized how much math is involved in politics.”

The students drew eight different Pennsylvania maps using criteria including compactness and, apparently, their own sense of what was just.

“In fewer than 10 43-minute classes, my students created eight different redistricting maps. They are not perfect. We concluded, in fact, that there is no mathematically perfect way to do this, but there are ways that seem reasonable and ones that do not. And, pretty much anyone could tell the difference when looking at the maps from across a large room. The current CD map plainly does not pass that test,” he said.

“If my eighth graders can draft congressional district maps that are very representative and compact, why can’t the Pennsylvania Legislature?” he wondered. “And if the state Legislature cannot figure out how to represent its citizens, I know some great 14-year-olds who already have.”

I was pretty much a failure at 8th grade math. But I might have been able to learn from this guy.

The U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that it is afraid that trying to restrict partisan gerrymanders will drag it into decision making that requires higher math and statistics. Maybe the judges need to meet these kids.

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