Redistricting: Does it Have to be Done by Humans?

Sep 26, 2018

 

Sara Fitzgerald, left, and Michael Martin, both with the group One Virginia, protest gerrymandering in front of the Supreme Court.
Credit Jacquelyn Martin / AP

 

Lawmakers are in Richmond Thursday to evaluate a new set of redistricting proposals. And as Republicans and Democrats throw out competing maps it’s left us with a question: can redistricting be done without people at all?


Computers are smart. Can’t they just draw district lines for us? Hannah Wheelan is a data specialist with the Princeton Gerrymandering project.

She says sure, computers can draw district lines. In fact that’s the way the process works. But behind the technology there’s always a human being plugging in the directions.

“And an algorithm might always have some of the developer’s biases just built into it, even if we didn’t realize that we put that into it,” says Wheelan.

Those biases come into play because the rules that govern mapmaking are fuzzy.

Sure districts need to have the same number of people, that’s clear cut. But they also have to keep communities together, and not dilute minority voting power. These are problems that take human judgement to solve, says Wheelan.  

“And we might be able to code a computer to make those judgements, but then they can’t explain how they made certain decisions.”

And with district maps under the judicial spotlight those decisions are certain to be reevaluated. So the person behind them, lawmaker or programmer, will always be on the hook.

 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.