Civic math: Mathematicians wield geometry, train experts in effort to fight gerrymandering and promote voting rights
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MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. (Aug. 7, 2017) –National experts in mathematics, law, politics, and voting rights are gathering at Tufts University this week to discuss nonpartisan solutions to gerrymandering and promote fair electoral districting practices across the country.
The conference is the inaugural workshop of the Metric Geometric and Gerrymandering Group (MGGG), a nonpartisan organization of Boston-based researchers led by Moon Duchin, a mathematician and Tisch Senior Fellow at Tufts University. The MGGG, with major support from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, pursues research, collaboration, and community-building by using math as a tool for civic good.
The first of five conferences being held across the country, this workshop will, among other things, help prepare experts with diverse technical backgrounds to play a role in future court cases involving partisan and racial gerrymandering, such as those now pending in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Texas. The gathering also offers an opportunity for educators to receive training and to collectively generate ideas on bringing the challenges of redistricting to their classrooms—a real-world civics education tool.
“This workshop was motivated by our sense that the mathematics of redistricting could use a reboot, with more contemporary ideas from the topology and geometry of data in the mix,” says Duchin, associate professor of mathematics in the School of Arts & Sciences. “But we’re really committed to keeping these mathematical interventions relevant by working with legal and political scholars and practitioners.”
The conference comes as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to take up Gill v. Whitford, a Wisconsin case that could decide how far political parties can go when drawing electoral districts to their own advantage. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said Gill v. Whitford could be the most importance case the court hears next term.
This week's event in Somerville kicks off a cycle of similar regional workshops across the country:
- Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin, Madison Oct. 12-15, 2017;
- North Carolina: Duke University, Nov. 2-5, 2017;
- Texas: University of Texas, Austin Feb. 1-4, 2018; and
- California: University of San Francisco, March 15-18, 2018.
The first three days of this workshop, held at the historic Somerville Theatre in Davis Square and at various locations around Tufts' Medford/Somerville campus, will include presentations from national experts in mathematics, political science, law and voting rights about research and practical interventions to fight gerrymandering and ensure fairly drawn, bipartisan voting districts.
Video of these general sessions will be available to the public at the conclusion of each day at https://sites.tufts.edu/gerrymandr/about-the-august-workshop/video/. Photographs also will be made available to the media, upon request.
The final two days of the event are dedicated to three specialized training sessions, with participants selected by application months in advance. In the expert witness track, legal practitioners will offer training on the procedures and principles of effective expert testimony. The teaching track will present high school and college-level math educators with sample lessons to introduce students to the concepts behind voting, redistricting, and civics. And the third track will be comprised of a team specializing in geographic information systems (GIS) who will work intensively in a "hackathon" to produce open-source databases, apps, and visualization tools in preparation for the 2020 census and the nationwide redistricting to follow.
The MGGG's mission is to apply geometry and computing to U.S. redistricting while engaging practitioners in the field. In particular, the group investigates notions of district "compactness" using cutting-edge mathematics and reflecting practical legal considerations. The researchers, based at Tufts and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, aim to combat the threat that gerrymandering of all kinds poses to democracy by pursuing research, fostering interdisciplinary collaboration, facilitating direct civic engagement, educating the public, and building a diverse community of technical experts around the country.
“The problem of gerrymandering has gotten steadily worse over the last few decades, enabled by new computer technologies and complex mathematical models that allow politicians to fine-tune their maps to an unprecedented extent,” says MGGG’s Mira Bernstein, a data scientist, math educator, and visiting assistant professor at Tufts. “All the more reason for mathematicians, and others in math-related fields, to step up and become part of the solution. Our goal is to build a nationwide community of experts from a broad range of STEM disciplines and to provide them with the tools and training they need to fight gerrymandering with math in 2020 and beyond.
Both Duchin and Bernstein are affiliates of the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) Program at the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. STS draws on humanities and social sciences approaches to study science and technology in their social context.
More details about the MGGG's research and its workshops are available at https://sites.tufts.edu/gerrymandr/.
[Editor's note: Moon Duchin's availability for comment during this week’s conference will be limited, but she and Mira Bernstein will be available for expert comment on gerrymandering after the conference’s conclusion and throughout the summer and fall.]
About Tufts University
Tufts University, located on campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville and Grafton, Massachusetts, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.
About Tisch College
The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life strives to strengthen civic engagement and political learning and is proud to support the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group’s work to solve one of the most pressing problems of democracy. The only university-wide college of its kind, Tisch College offers transformational student learning and service opportunities, conducts groundbreaking research on civic and political participation, and forges innovative community partnerships. Its work is guided by two core beliefs: that communities, nations and the world are stronger, more prosperous, and more just when citizens actively participate in civic and democratic life; and that higher education has a responsibility to develop the next generation of active citizens.