When some people ponder the redistricting riddle, they conclude the problem boils down to this phrase: the human element.

As long as the choice is between having maps made  by scheming politicians or by inexperienced voters, they say, the Republic is doomed.

Why not, they ask, just let the computer algorithm do it?

In ones and zeroes we trust

At first blush, there’s a poetic justice to that notion.

An algorithm is a set of rules a computer uses to solve a problem. And algorithms are what weaponized gerrymandering in the first place. The  maps didn’t veer wildly out of control until political operatives got their hands on high-powered computers, stuffed them with data and made them dance to a thoroughly partisan tune.  

We can reclaim democracy, this view says, by harnessing the power of algorithms for altruistic ends.

They say: “Computers do not vote red or blue (IBM’s old nickname – Big Blue - notwithstanding).   They do not do partisanship.”

So, some very smart people at places like MIT and Brown have been asking: “Why not just entrust the job of political redistricting to computers?”

A schematic drawing wiht a person in one of the boxes.
Image Credit: Illustration by Rob Tornoe


Here’s why not, in 3 parts

Part 1

Inside every algorithm lurks embedded values favored by the human beings who wrote the algorithm.  Fans of computers like to think they are pure reasoning machines, but not quite so.

After what we’ve learned about Facebook and Uber and CompStat  in the last few years, it’s hard to uphold the claim that algorithms are benign and untainted by  human bias.

Part 2

The exercise of drawing election maps should be small-d democratic, not technocratic.   You can’t escape the role of values, which is to say: human beings. There is no such thing as the one perfect election map, the solution without flaw.   Your assessment of any given map depends on what you consider the most important goal of the redistricting.

Part 3

The maps that Pennsylvanians use to conduct the elections that will decide how their state is run should be drawn by  — guess who? — Pennsylvanians. Not by some political scientist, mathematician or computer geeks from MIT or Stanford or any other campus or think tank, no matter how brilliant and well-meaning they are.

It should be up to Pennsylvanians, not an array of ones and zeroes firing at insane speeds, to decide how Pennsylvanians want themselves to be represented.

None of this implies that computing power and algorithms should play no role in the solution. Clearly, they should and will (and have been vital to the court cases that have put gerrymandering on notice that its days are numbered).   

But their proper role is as tools of human will and judgment, not substitutes for them.

Draw the Lines?  Let the people do it . (The algorithm can assist.)