Writing in the Oregonian, 2010 Senate loser Jim Huffman argues that Secretary of State Kate Brown ought to turn over redistricting to "computer nerds from some distant place such as MIT, where they have probably never heard of Oregon."
He wants them to develop a computer system "sort of like the BCS rankings in college football" and "write a program based on the existing [redistricting] criteria" and "let the chips fall where they may." He's not the first to suggest this. In fact, serious mathematicians wrestle with the idea all the time.
It's certainly a seductive idea. After all, couldn't a computer come up with a better map than all this messy democracy stuff? It's especially seductive to me - as a political hack, map nerd, and a guy who pays way too much attention to college football. Seductive enough that I've been reading up on computerized mathematical redistricting for some years now.
And let me tell you: it won't work.
Or, more accurately, it ends up being just as political and messy as anything we're doing now. After all, you have to define what a "perfect" district would look like and how the model would work.
Should you just slice the state into five perfectly vertical north-south stripes of equal population? Or maybe you should start at the population center of the state and produce five pizza-pie slices. Or maybe you could pick a corner of the state and have a computer spread the district like an amoeba, optimizing for compactness. These are all ideas that serious people have proposed as mathematical solutions to the redistricting problem.
One oft-cited method would be the shortest-splitline algorithm from Temple University's Warren Smith. Basically, draw the shortest line across Oregon that would split the state on a 3:2 ratio. Then, do that again, splitting the bigger chunk into 2:1 ratio. Then split the two remaining big chunks in half. Presto - five districts!
Unfortunately, here's what that would look like (courtesy of a programmer named Ivan Ryan.)
(Note that this is based on the 2000 census numbers. Click to zoom.)
Another map nerd and software engineer, Brian Olson, has produced a computer program to draw maps "where people have the lowest average distance to the center of their district." Here's what that would look like for Oregon (with 2010 census numbers):
A little prettier, but still splitting up cities and counties all over the place. And note, Professor Huffman, that both of these mathematically-modeled maps split the Portland metro area in ways that tend to make your GOP friends scream.
Writing in Slate in 2009, Chris Wilson summed it up:
In theory, it makes wonderful sense to hire an algorithm to do the job. Simply plug in all the requirements for a congressional district—relatively equal population, compliance with the Voting Rights Act, and so forth—and let the nonpartisan processor divvy up the state into sensible, shapely chunks. Algorithms, after all—thanks in part to Google—are having a great decade. ...
So, why is an algorithmic solution for congressional redistricting such a pipe dream?
In part it's because it is surprisingly hard to define, or at least reduce to a set of rules, what a "gerrymandered district" is. Writing a formula for drawing districts requires us to define how funny-looking is too funny looking. And what is funny, anyway?
In short, it's a pretty bad idea. While you get some mathematical neutrality, you end up jettisoning all the human aspects - what makes community, which roads divide communities and which ones connect them, (usually) political boundaries like cities and counties and school districts, and never mind a key legal requirement that Huffman failed to quote in his op-ed: that "no district shall be drawn for the purpose of diluting the voting strength of any language or ethnic minority group." All that, and legislators still have to be the ones that decide which mathematical algorithm gets used and what criteria it should utilize and prioritize.
Of course, this bad idea is coming from a guy who ran against Ron Wyden and spent $2,177,539 more than Al King did in 2004 against Wyden - but only moved the needle from 32% to 39%. That's over $300k per percentage point.
Bad ideas seem to be his thing.