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WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach reports on innovation in southeastern Wisconsin.

Better Math May Be Coming To Wisconsin Redistricting This Year

Maayan Silver
A sign from the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, made up of the ACLU and other groups, on a Milwaukee yard in Sept. 2019.

A state panel working on the once per decade redrawing of Wisconsin's political districts meets again Thursday evening online. The non-partisan People's Maps Commission will again hear public and invited testimony. Soon, the panel will be working with a nationally-known mathematician who says geometry can help reduce gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the practice of setting up voting districts for partisan gain. 

The GOP controlled redistricting ten years ago, and since then most state legislative elections in Wisconsin haven't been very close. Critics say the Republicans drew the district lines to try to keep their legislative majorities. The GOP still dominates both the 33-member State Senate and 99-member Assembly. Republicans argue voters simply like their ideas and candidates better. But Democrats or liberals have won several statewide races in the past three years.

A rare close legislative contest occurred last November when Democrat Deb Andraca narrowly defeated GOP incumbent Jim Ott in the 23rd Assembly District that stretches from Shorewood to Saukville. And even then, Andraca told the People's Maps Commission last month that her post-election offer to work with Republicans got the cold shoulder.

"Their response was, 'Good Luck! You flipped a district and you have a target on your back. None of us want you to succeed at anything, and we're coming for your seat,'" said Andraca.

Credit Screenshot
Moon Duchin is a mathematics professor at Tufts University.

It's possible the 23rd district race in November of next year will also be competitive.

But mathematics professor Moon Duchin says Wisconsin may need some help to make sure more districts are responsive to changes in voters' preferences. Duchin is principal investigator for the MGGG Restricting Lab at Tufts University, which will assess draft maps drawn by the People's Maps Commission.  

Duchin says she approaches redistricting as a geometry problem.

"Because it's basically you take your state and you have to cut it into pieces and it's those pieces, and therefor the shapes of those pieces, that have a lot of impact on the quality of representation,” she says.

Duchin says she looks for districts that seem to be drawn normally, and ones that have such odd shapes that they seem unusual or extreme. She says geometry also comes in when looking at more ways districts can be put together and have them be well-connected internally.

"Because you want them to represent community, after all. That's what districts are originally supposed to do if you go all the way back to the founding. They're supposed to show people with shared interests, bring them together, so they can have a voice in government.  A good set of districts would have a lot of connections within the districts, more than connections between the districts,” she says.

Duchin says data currently being collected in Wisconsin communities will go into computers. "It's going to more than ever before give us a way to take community data, and make it, you know, synthesize it, aggregate it and make it visible to people drawing the lines,” she says.

Credit UW-Madison
David Canon is a professor of political science at UW-Madison and author of the book, Race, Redistricting, and Representation.

UW-Madison political science professor David Canon serves on the advisory board for the redistricting lab at Tufts. He argues the lab will help come up with more neutral maps compared to ones drawn or approved by politicians a decade ago.

"You can see then the level of bias in the existing map. What they're doing now, really for the first time, because this technology did not exist in a way that was as advanced ten years ago, this will be the first time that these computer algorithms have been used,” says Canon.

Even with a more well-defined sequence of instructions for computers, many analysts expect this year's redistricting to end up in court.

But Canon says judges have been wanting to see evidence of a better process. "I don't know if they want more math per se. But I think they do want to have guidance, in terms of how to draw a fair map," he says.

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