CoastLine: A New Way to Approach Congressional Redistricting

Dec 1, 2016


A federal court ruled earlier this year that two of North Carolina’s congressional districts, drawn in 2011, were unconstitutional because they were racially gerrymandered.  That case is to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court next week.  Earlier this week in a separate ruling, a federal court ordered North Carolina to hold special legislative elections next year – for the state House and Senate – after 28 state districts are redrawn to comply with a gerrymandering ruling.  All of those maps were drawn by the current Republican majority after the 2010 Census. 

However, gerrymandering is not a political strategy reserved for one party – nor is it anything new.  The tactic is older than its name – going back in the United States to the 18th century.  According to a history published in The Atlantic, Patrick Henry persuaded the Virginia state legislature to remake a district to thwart the political ambitions of his opponents.  It was decades later – the early part of the 19th century when the term gerrymander was coined: after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a redistricting plan into law that a newspaper declared looked like the shape of a salamander.  Using the Governor’s last name, the term gerrymander was coined.  And it stuck.

Today, we’re going to learn more about how gerrymandering really works – and hear about a project that successfully drew congressional district maps for North Carolina without considering politics.  We’ll also explore research out of Duke University’s math department that sheds light on how gerrymandered North Carolina actually is. 

GUESTS:

  • Tom Ross, Terry Sanford Distinguished Fellow at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and former President of the University of North Carolina system 
  • Jonathan Mattingly, professor of mathematics and statistical science at Duke University and Chair of the Mathematics Department

Segment One

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Tom Ross, this project that you spearheaded is a collaboration between Duke University and Common Cause that set out to draw congressional districts in North Carolina without regard for political affiliation. Tell us how this came together and how you engaged this panel of 10 people.

Tom Ross: My work here at Duke has been focused on redistricting since I first joined, and I was approached by Common Cause with the idea of trying to think of a way that we could show people that redistricting can be done in a different way, in a nonpartisan way. So, we came up with the idea of doing a simulation of what an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission could do—how it would look, how it would function, and what the outcome of such a panel might look like.

The idea was that we would try to get some people that were well-respected North Carolinians that would act as an independent commission, that would not consider party registration or political voting history in drawing districts so that we would end up with districts that didn’t take into account party politics but would comply with federal laws and all the rest of the court cases that deal with population variance and those kinds of things.

It’s important to know that the criteria we used was taken out of a bill that was introduced in the state House and passed the state House, but did not ever pass the Senate, and that was in the Republican legislature.

So, you’re right that this is not a partisan issue. This is an issue where Democrats and Republicans have taken advantage of gerrymandering. I think what it’s led to is an increase in voter dissatisfaction. What we hope to do is show there’s another way.

We chose judges to serve on this panel because, among all public officials, they still have a relatively high credibility, and also, I used to be one, so I knew a lot of them. We ended up with five former chief justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court. We also had a former associate justice of the Supreme Court. So, six former members of the North Carolina Supreme Court, two former members of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and two Superior Court judges. We were careful to select five that had run for office as Democrats and five that had run for office as Republicans so it was a balanced panel.

We provided the judges with a lot of background information about the demographics of North Carolina—not voting demographics, but a lot of the demographic information about the state. We also provided them with some legal background in terms of what the requirements of the Voting Rights Act are, what the requirements of “one man, one vote” are. And then we asked the judges to draw districts. We broke them into two groups and asked each group of five judges to come up with a map.

The only directions we gave them were that you had to comply with the criteria set out in House Bill 92, and we asked one group to start in the western part of the state and we asked the other group to start in the two urban areas—Wake County and Mecklenburg county—that are too large to have their own districts. The populations of Wake and Mecklenburg counties exceeds what the population of a congressional district is. So we told them to start in those two places and go from there. They each came up with maps.

We then brought the judges back together and deliberated on the maps to decide which was best. Ultimately, the judges agreed upon one map. We turned that over to Jonathan Mattingly and his crowd to do an analysis of it, but we also held a news conference where we explained our process and compared the map the judges had drawn to a couple of previous legislative maps drawn by Democrats in 2001 and Republicans in 2011.

RLH: We’ll get to Jonathan Mattingly’s assessment of those maps in just a moment, but Jonathan Mattingly, tell us about what you discovered when you, part of Duke University’s math department, and your students took a look at the outcomes of the 2012 elections. What did you see?

Jonathan Mattingly: That 2012 election was actually what got me thinking about this question. Just a few fact: In that election, the majority voted for a Democratic representative in the election—barely, just over 50%, 50.6%, I think—and the remainder voted Republican. But yet, when the votes were tallied, there were four Democrats elected out of the thirteen representatives. So four Democrats and nine Republicans. And at first that seems—

RLH: Fifty percent of the votes, just to be clear, going to—

Jonathan Mattingly: Over 50% went Democrat, but only four of thirteen representatives. That was surprising to me on one level, but not on another level because I believe in regionalism. I believe the urban areas have different concerns than the farmers or the coastline, the northern part of the coast or the southern part of the coast, or the area around Asheville and the western part of the state. I grew up in North Carolina, and I understood that, and I was interested in trying to understand to what degree it is, if it came from that regionalism.

The surprising this is that we talk about one person, one vote, and making sure everyone gets to vote, but even after you’ve taken the votes, there’s a lot of latitude in what the outcome is based on how you draw the districts. It’s shocking actually how much you can change the outcome of an election just by redrawing the districts.

So for instance, if you take the 2012 elections and you keep the votes exactly the same—you don’t change a single vote, you keep every precinct voting the way it voted initially—and you rearrange in a random way, but in a random way that tries to be faithful and stay true to this House Bill 92 that Tom just mentioned, and then you ask, “Well, what are the possible outcomes?” It turns out you can get anywhere from four to nine Democrats elected, with the vast majority being between five and eight, and the most likely are six or seven Democrats elected when in fact, only four were elected. Just by never changing a vote, never doing anything other than rearranging the districts, you can change the outcome a lot. And so the question is, “Is making sure one person, one vote enough to maintain our democracy?” And I guess my answer would be no.

RLH: There are principles that are laid out in House Bill 92. This is something that I think was last taken up in February of this year. We don’t know if that’s going to go anywhere, but can you briefly describe what those ideas are, what this panel of judges and Jon Mattingly’s project was trying to take into account as they drew these maps?

Tom Ross: House Bill 92 had a number of provisions, but the most important one in terms of our work at Duke University was the criteria it sets out for what could and should be considered under that bill, if it became law, in drawing districts. There were certain key principles. The people who were drawing the maps could not consider partisan voting history or party registration. The districts needed to be compact. The districts needed to not be concerned with the residency of incumbents. The districts needed to avoid breaking up counties or precincts to the extent possible. I think I should say here that it’s impossible under one person, one vote standards in North Carolina to not break county lines because you have two counties—as I mentioned earlier, Wake County and Mecklenburg counties—that are both larger than the size of a congressional district if you divide the population by thirteen. So, you have to break county lines, but this bill said, “Do that only to the minimal extent you have to.” So that’s really what the criteria are. Quite frankly, I think legislators pay some attention to compactness and trying to avoid breaking too many county lines. Both parties have traditionally paid attention to incumbents and where they live and oftentimes draw districts specifically for incumbents. And they also have considered very carefully party registration and voting history. 

Segments Two

RLH: Tom Ross, just before we went to break, you were talking about the principals laid out in House Bill 92 that state legislators might use and that your panel used to create this map that did not take into account political affiliation or partisan politics. You said that state legislators do pay attention to compactness, but what are some of the principles laid out in House Bill 92 that they’re not adhering to right now, that would turn this into a fairer process?

Tom Ross: I think there are two. One is, obviously, considering partisan registration and voting history. They consider that very carefully now. House Bill 92 would prevent them from considering it, and I think that would lead to more competitive districts that voters would have more confidence in. Secondly, when they’re drawing districts, they pay close attention to where incumbents live and where they think incumbents can be protected, and that is something that would also be prohibited under House Bill 92.

RLH: Other than judicial orders, do the state legislators have any incentive to consider taking partisan politics out of this?

Tom Ross: Well, I think it’s interesting to think about that question because if you look historically in North Carolina and really in many states, gerrymandering is a practice that happens with both parties. The Democrats were quite adept at gerrymandering when they were in control of our legislature. The Republicans have been quite good at it. Both parties get better and better because of the use of computers nowadays. The one incentive that both parties have is uncertainty about the future—you know, what the political tone and outcomes of future elections will be, demographic changes. All those things matter in terms of who’s going to win elections. Uncertainty, probably more than anything else, is the incentive for change.

RLH: Duke’s math department took a look at the maps drawn by Tom Ross’s panel of retired judges. What did you find? From a statistical point of view, how fair are the districts that this panel of judges drew?

Jonathan Mattingly: Maybe it’s worthwhile for me just to say for a second what we did. Using the nonpartisan criteria that Tom just laid out, of compactness, separation of population, and splitting of counties and the like. We generated thousands and thousands of redistrictings, and then we reran the 2012 elections, for example, with those different redistrictings, and we tabulated the results, and then we asked, “How typical are the results that one gets from the judges’ redistrictings or from the redistrictings used in the 2012 or 2016 elections?” We found that the judges were right in the middle. They were much better. They were clearly representative of what the vote had been, whereas the 2012 and 2016 were way out on the edges. But I want to circle back and just say one thing, which is that I’m talking about the results, but I think it’s also a lot about responsiveness and whether districts are responsive to the people in them. We found also that the judges’ districts had many more districts close to the center which could possibly be flipped one way or the other relative to the other redistrictings.

RLH: So they actually drew more competitive districts?

Jonathan Mattingly: Correct. That was one thing we really tried to do. This wasn’t just a question about who won and who lost. We also came up with a measure of competitiveness—that is to say, the level of gerrymandering. The judges’ districts were much less gerrymandered. That is to say, the most Democratic district had the same number of Democrats as it typically did when you drew them randomly, and the most Republican district had the same number that typically happened when you drew them randomly, and it had about the same number in the middle—in the sweet spot that could be flipped one way or the other—as randomly drawn districts.

RLH: In Wisconsin, a three-judge panel recently found their redrawn maps unconstitutional. They determined it was a partisan gerrymander. If this ruling stands, could this set a legal precedent? This was published actually in the New York Times earlier this week, I believe. A mathematical formula, in this case, identified what they’re calling an efficiency gap. The way they described this mathematical efficiency gap, they said the formula divides the difference between the two party’s wasted votes—those are votes beyond those needed by a winning side—and votes cast by a losing side by the total number of votes cast, and when both parties waste the same number of votes, the result is zero, which is supposedly ideal, but when the winning party wastes fewer votes than it’s opponent, its score rises. So in this Wisconsin race, Republicans won 48.6% of the two-party vote but took 61% of the assembly’s 99 seats. Have you looked at an efficiency gap, Professor Jonathan Mattingly?

Jonathan Mattingly: I haven’t looked at the specific work that you’re talking about, although I was reading it this week with interest. But we had a similar idea. I mean, it all comes down to the same question: Are you putting many more of one party in the extreme precincts? For instance, if a district is going to go Democrat and you put more Democrats than are necessary in there, typically then you find there are less in the middle and it shifts things for the Republicans. And vice versa. For instance, if you take Maryland, it’s not as gerrymandered by any stretch as North Carolina, but when you look at the districts, they’re definitely built to protect the Democratic majority and therefore to be less responsive to what the people want.

RLH: Would you say that gerrymandering affects not only the ability of minority groups to be represented but also the willingness of politicians to reach across the aisle when they’re in office? Can you talk about that dynamic?

Tom Ross: Certainly. One of the problems you have with districts that are not competitive— And let me just say that in the most recent Congressional election, the winner that had the least percentage of vote had 56% of the vote. So if you’re thinking about wasted votes, the person who had the closest election won 56-44% of the vote. Most of the margins were in the 60-40% range. We really have very few districts if any in North Carolina that are truly competitive. So the result of that is that if you’re a Republican in a Democrat district or a Democrat in a Republican district, you don’t really feel like you have a voice. There’s really not a voice much after a primary. And what I think happens is politicians don’t really have to be as responsive to the voters during a reelection campaign because their seat is safe, so the voters have a more difficult time holding candidates accountable. They don’t feel like their voice is really heard, and they become disengaged. At the same time, I think it’s possible that in both parties, that because you’re safe in a general election, the risk you run is in a primary, so you tend to move to the extremes of your party. I think that’s true in either party. So you end up with people who are more on the extremes and therefore less able to compromise and less able to govern. So I think it does have consequences for our democracy, which is why I really believe we need to move to a nonpartisan system.

RLH: Is there any correlation between the lack of willingness between politicians on Capitol Hill to compromise and negotiate versus the way people talk about what it might have been like 20 or 30 years ago? Is there more gerrymandering going on than there was a couple of decades ago?

Tom Ross: I suspect there is more, but I think we’re better at it. Computers have really made this much more of a science and less of an art, so I think that’s part of what’s going on. But the truth of the matter is that the legal contest to gerrymandering— And you mentioned the Wisconsin case, and if I might take a moment on that because it’s really important. Historically, the courts have stayed away from redistricting cases unless there’s an allegation of racial gerrymandering. They’ve never really considered partisan gerrymandering because the courts have a doctrine traditionally that they don’t examine political questions. But the Wisconsin case is historic in many ways because it’s, to my knowledge, the first time a court has held as unconstitutional a legislative or congressional map based on partisan gerrymandering, not racial gerrymandering. You asked the question, “If that were upheld, what would the impact be?” It could transform politics in America in a hurry because if it were upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court, then every state would have to have a nonpartisan methodology or at least there would be a risk that if they used partisan politics too much that they would cross a Constitutional line. That case could really change things a great deal. There’s a similar case pending in North Carolina attacking the Congressional districts for partisan gerrymandering.

RLH: And that is based on this efficiency gap. Wasn’t the ruling based on the fact that they were able to say, “This is the mathematical formula that establishes this as gerrymandered”? In other words, there’s a way to identify a district, technically, as gerrymandered, correct?

Tom Ross: I think that that was very helpful to the judges because when you start talking about gerrymandering based on partisan politics, one of the tough parts that a judge has to face is, “How do I know when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far, so that it violates the Constitution?” And I think this mathematical process that was presented to the judges in the Wisconsin case was the first time we’ve really had a solid statistical methodology presented to judges that would allow them to be able to draw a line between what is too much partisan gerrymandering and what is permissible, and so I think that is a very important part of that case, for sure. Jonathan’s work is not dissimilar in the sense that it allows you very easily to see that there are lots of other ways that are more competitive and that are fairer in terms of voter outcomes than the way we do it now. If you look at 2016, 53% of the voters voted for the Republican candidate in Congress, 47% voted for the Democrat. If you apply that to 13 seats, it’s 7-6. The election was 10-3.

Jonathan Mattingly: I’ll just add on. This idea of coming up with a way to quantify how gerrymandered something was was really one of our big motivations. We were really interested in trying to understand how to identify the level of gerrymandering. The ideas are very close to what was used in the Wisconsin case, in fact.

RLH: So, can you, Jonathan Mattingly, say, based on this particular set of criteria, that this is absolutely a gerrymandered— I mean, is this shades of grey, or is this something where there’s a clear dividing line?

Jonathan Mattingly: In between black and white, there are shades of grey, but sometimes something is black and something is white. In this case, it’s black and white. I don’t think we’ll ever have a fine-toothed meter that tells us, “Oh, now it’s in the red, it’s over,” but I think we can talk about how we want things in the reasonable zone. Yes, districts will be influenced by politics, of course. And yes, they’re influenced by local considerations, of course, but sometimes you cross a line, and you reach a level of gerrymandering that’s unacceptable, and I think that’s what’s been happening in various places in the country now. That’s what our analysis shows.

Bill (caller): A quick comment, Rachel. Even though Terry Gross doesn’t have a call-in discussion, I put the two of you in the same category because of the knowledge reflected in your questions. I’m curious about how can you allow for incumbents in these races where it’s 60-40%, something like that? Is there an opinion, even though it’s outside of this topic, on what might be the advantage of having open primaries, as they do in California, where the top two vote getters go into the November election, regardless of party?

Tom Ross: You know, that is a great question because that is a new approach that California is using. California has also adopted a nonpartisan redistricting system. I think people’s initial reaction has been positive to open primaries of that type. I also want to address the question about incumbency. House Bill 92 would prohibit the drawers of maps from considering where incumbents live. You wouldn’t have to do it that way. You could still draw districts without regard to partisan politics and voting history, but pay attention to that, if you thought that was an important factor, but the House Bill did exclude that as one of the factors.

John (email): Is it even possible to produce a single-member district system that is immune from gerrymandering if any criteria other than proportional representation by party voted for are included? To make the question interesting, allow “cracking” third parties out of any representation at all.

Jonathan Mattingly: You never want to say never, but I think we can do a lot better. I think that should be our goal. In voting systems, there is no good voting system. You write down a reasonable set of criteria, and every voting system you write down will violate one of the criteria. So I don’t think we can let the fact that there’s no perfect one dissuade us from finding good ones.

Tom Ross: If I might add, it’s important for all of us to remember there’s an increasingly large number of voters that are registered as Independents, that aren’t registered as Democrats or Republicans, and yet we draw the maps in many places around the country using partisan gerrymandering, where we favor one party or the other and really ignoring independent voters completely.

RLH: He also used the term “cracking” in his email. We’ve heard “packing” and “cracking,” and I’m not sure that we’ve actually explained how this works. Why does cramming voters of one ilk—a racial group, or a group of voters with one political affiliation—why does that dilute their votes?

Jonathan Mattingly: If you have a split that’s very close in the general population, but then imagine that you take all of one party and pile them into two or three districts so they win by 90% in each of those districts. Necessarily, you’re going to have many less of those voters left over to put in the remaining districts, and you can then tilt them to the other party, even though, according to proportionality, it should have been the other way. I don’t know if I should suggest this, but if you look on Wikipedia, there’s a very nice graphic that shows up in various newspapers—The Washington Post and other places from time to time—that explains this. It’s one with little red and blue boxes. You’ll find it if you go looking for it. 

Segment Three

Tom Ross: I just want to be sure that people understand the “cracking” part of packing and cracking. Packing is when you take all the voters that are similar in their voting history and put them in one district, as Jonathan explained, so that the impact of their votes is diluted by putting them all in one district. Cracking is sort of the opposite of that, and that is where you’ve got a concentration of people who have historically voted in the same way for one party or the other, and you’re trying to draw districts that are favorable to the other party, you crack them. That is, you break them in parts and put them in different districts so their impact on the outcome of the election might be diluted.

Jesse (caller): I was wondering what you meant by a possible way of redistricting. Is this on the table or is it just a way of doing it?

RLH: That’s a good question, Jesse. I’ve been referring to the fact that there is a bill, House Bill 92, in the state legislature. Tom Ross, you’re very familiar with the process that this bill has gone through and where it is now. Your project, your collaboration between Duke University and Common Cause to draw these theoretical district maps with a bipartisan panel of retired judges, it was a completely separate, kind of experimental, educational project. Is that correct?

Tom Ross: That’s correct. The issue is one that I’ve been interested in. What we’ve seen happen around the country is states beginning to move to a nonpartisan method. California, Arizona, and others are moving in this direction. What we were trying to demonstrate with our simulation, our project with Common Cause, was that North Carolina could have a bipartisan commission to draw districts on a nonpartisan basis.

Legislatively, what’s happened is there have been bills historically—1989, 1999, 2009, and then House Bill 92—that have been introduced in the legislature calling for nonpartisan redistricting. None of those bills have ever passed both houses. House Bill 92 did pass the state House of Representatives, but was not taken up by the Senate. Of course, we’re starting a new legislative session this year, so House Bill 92 is technically dead and there would have to be a new bill introduced if this were going to be considered by this General Assembly.

You know, there are lots of ways this could be accomplished. It could be accomplished through legislation or it could also be accomplished by Constitutional amendment, where the Constitution were amended to require redistricting to be done in a nonpartisan way. There are a lot of people who think that’s the best route because then neither party can go back and change it if they get control, or at least it would be much harder to change.

RLH: Tom Ross, you said there are a number of states that have already adopted nonpartisan processes. How many are there? Is North Carolina behind or are we with the pack in terms of how quickly states are moving on this? Where do we stand against the rest of the country?

Tom Ross: We’re not behind at all. I think this is a relatively new trend. There have been some states like Iowa that have been doing it in a nonpartisan way for a long time, over twenty years. The states that tend to go this way are states that allow referendums by the people, and so when it’s been put on the ballot as a referendum, the people vote for it. Many polls as well as these elections in referendum states have demonstrated that the public is really tired of this bitter, divisive politics, and they see fixing redistricting as a way to help solve this problem. I think there is increasing attention to this. I think the court decision in Wisconsin also has drawn attention to it. North Carolina is not behind. There’s still a majority of states that allow partisan gerrymandering, but it happens at various levels in states, obviously, depending on how the parties break down in each state. So if it’s a real strong red state, there’s going to probably be a little less gerrymandering. If it’s a really strong blue state, the same. It still does happen in those states, by the way, but not quite to the extent that it does in places like North Carolina that are much more even in terms of the parties.

Tom (caller): I'm a registered Independent (who did not vote for Trump). The Democrats gerrymandered for years, but now, when the Republicans manage to get in and gerrymander, now it's not okay anymore? Why the outcry now?

Tom Ross: That’s a great question except I think there has been an outcry in the past. As I said, there have been bills introduced by Republicans in the past, there have been bipartisan bills. House Bill 92 was a bipartisan bill. There are people in both parties that feel this needs to be fixed. There’s been a lot of discussion about this for many, many years. It’s an issue that a lot of people believe is critical if we’re going to fix the broken democracy that many people believe we have now. There has been an outcry in the past. He’s exactly right. The Democrats did it before. The Republicans are doing it now. Neither, in my view, are right. What we need to do is focus on a new way, and I think there is increasing interest in it.

Jonathan Mattingly: I’ll just add that, as Tom said earlier, there’s an arms race technologically. Now we’re able to gerrymander much more effectively and so we’re able to, in some sense, do more damage to the electoral process than we could before. Simultaneously, we’re allowed to use techniques like we’re trying to develop to give a nonpartisan read on whether a redistricting is gerrymandered or not.

RLH: How does compliance with the Voting Rights Act play out when redrawing district lines? What are some of the issues that we have to look at? We talked earlier about packing and cracking and what that means, but isn’t it important to draw majority and minority districts? How does that work?

Tom Ross: The Voting Rights Act is still in play, and it does require that we continue to draw majority and minority districts. I think the question becomes, “What is a majority and minority district?” It used to be that people thought you had to have a very, very high percentage of minority voters in that district to make it winnable by the candidate of choice by the minority group, but I think people now realize—and again, computers have helped us figure this out—that the percentage of minorities that need to be in a particular district to ensure that their candidate—whether it’s a member of that minority or not—their chosen candidate or the candidate they prefer, actually wins. We can now, I think, do a better job of complying with the Voting Rights Act and at the same time, allow districts to be drawn that are more competitive across the entire state. It still has a role to play as long as that law is in force, but I think it is possible to draw very competitive districts and still comply with that law.

Jonathan Mattingly: I’ll add in that in our analysis, we completely took into account the Voting Rights Act. So when we were sampling, when we were generating these thousands of random districts to kind of suss out the true signal in the vote, we only generated districts that had a certain fraction, that always had a district that had 40% minority, that always had a district with at least 35%. We had a few benchmarks, target percentages that we put in, and we took those target percentages, in fact, from the districts that the judges drew. So we chose the same percentages that their top three or four districts had.

RLH: You are not suggesting that this project could develop, say, software that would draw these maps. You are just evaluating maps drawn by people based on certain principles. Is that an important distinction?

Jonathan Mattingly: For me, it is. The system can always be gamed if you make it too rigid. There’s always criteria and some politics that needs to go into the process. I think the question is, “Can we help answer the question—not just make it, as one of the callers said, ‘You did it last time, and now it’s my turn, I’ll do it now.’ How do we decide what’s too much?” I like to say, “Gerrymandering, where do you draw the line?” Quite literally, where do you draw the line if something is too gerrymandered?

Dennis (caller): I just wanted to point out that you could have a complete imbalance in the results of the Congressional district elections, even though at the state level, there is almost no difference between the registration, if the excess for one party is evenly distributed over all the Congressional districts. It could be 51-49% at the state level, and yet there’s a one or two vote majority in each of the districts and end up with 11 to 0, to take the numbers in North Carolina. My point is, I think we have to be careful about what measure is used to decide that somehow the districting is inappropriate, whether it’s gerrymandered or determined in some other way.

Jonathan Mattingly: I agree with you completely, and that’s why, in our generating these random districts, these are not engineered districts. We did not look at the registration or the voting history. We only allowed our generation procedure to say, you know— How good was a district based on the score function that took into account: How well did it separate the population? How compact was it? Did it split counties? Did it satisfy the Voting Rights Act? If it did all those things to varying degrees, then we awarded it a score. There’s a simple way to randomly sample districts that have good scores. That’s what we did. We randomly sampled thousands and thousands of districts with good scores. You may quibble about one or the other, but we found that even when we turned the dial, when we changed the parameters, when we changed how we did it a little bit, the results were always the same. 2012 was heavily gerrymandered. 2016 was a little better but still not so great. What the judges did was much, much better.

Peg (email): What are the most common objections to nonpartisan district maps?

RLH: Tom Ross, why does this keep failing when it comes up?

Tom Ross: I’m not really in a position to say what people say about what the strengths of partisan districting are. You know, it’s something people don’t talk about a lot, unfortunately, and I think it’s something we need to talk more about. I think there are a lot of negatives to partisan redistricting, and I think we’ve seen that with gerrymandering that has caused voters to become less engaged and that, in many cases, politicians aren’t as accountable to the voters as we’d like them to be in a strong democracy. I think there are a lot of positives to trying the nonpartisan way. We’ve seen the results of partisan redistricting, and It tends to be a divided democracy that is not as functional as I think we all wish it was. And so, I think there are a lot of positives about trying it a different way.

RLH: We’ve been looking at North Carolina’s congressional district maps, but what about the state districts? Is that something, Jonathan Mattingly, that your students might look at at some point?

Jonathan Mattingly: We’d like to. I mean, conceptually, theoretically, there’s no difference, and the kind of analysis we did could easily be applied to the state data, the state General Assembly districts. The problem is, at the moment, we don’t have that data loaded in. It’s much finer grain. It’s not at the level of precincts. It’s at the level of census tracks and census blocks, and that’s a much bigger problem. The scale of that is bigger. We’re actually considering looking into it, but at the moment, we’re not quite set up to do it, but maybe we will be in the near future. We got some motivation this week.

Tom Ross: I think the principles are the same, and you certainly could look at it.

RLH: Yes, and it’s interesting because just here in southeastern North Carolina, there’s a state Senate district that is one large county, and then it takes a very small segment of another county—sort of plucks it out of the middle and tosses it over a river—and you’ve talked about how important compactness is, and also about keeping counties together when possible. And I think this little pocket, which was taken out of New Hanover County and tossed into Brunswick County, is largely African American in a more urban setting than Brunswick County. Why does that matter to those constituents?

Tom Ross: People who live in similar places have different interests than people who live in different places. So, I don’t know for certain because I don’t live in Wilmington or in Brunswick County, but I know them because I come to them often. Wilmington is increasingly an urban community, and the issues they’re facing are different than those in Brunswick County. In an ideal democracy, you’d have someone represent you who understands your issues because they live in the same community you do. So if you’re taken out of the middle of Wilmington, which is an urban area, and placed in a different county that doesn’t face the same issues, your representation may not be exactly what you want it to be.