How big data takes gerrymandering to a whole new level

Using technology to draw the boundaries in a way that favors one party over another is a serious threat to America's future
30 May 2018

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks outside the court after hearing arguments against gerrymandering. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON

Gerrymandering is the manipulation of boundaries of an electoral constituency so as to favor one party or class over others.

Basically, it allows the ruling party in a country to re-draw the borders to group voters as they see fit.

The idea is to concentrate or dilute the power of voters, in each of the resulting districts, in a way that maximizes the chances of election of representatives of a certain party over those of another.

And although it sounds illegal, it really isn’t.

In the US, so long as the boundaries aren’t being re-drawn to disadvantage any minority or particular ethnic group, it’s considered legal.

“Gerrymandering is a partisan strategy used to undermine our democracy by dividing, and thereby silencing, the collective voices of the people in a given area. We must fight gerrymandering to ensure that all voices are heard rather than just those with a party majority,” James Thompson, 2018 US Congressional Candidate told TechHQ.

The truth is, gerrymandering has been practiced for decades – and citizens and courts have had several dialogues about the issue and why it should be made illegal.

Over time, the sentiment against gerrymandering has grown stronger. There are more conversations happening discussing why it’s wrong and how it hurts the democracy, and there is greater awareness (and action).

“Democracy is at its heart a community, not an individual, activity. The electorate makes a choice on issues and candidates through conversations among citizens, as fostered through media and civic organizations,” Neil Makhija, Public Interest Lawyer and Lecturer at Penn Law explained to TechHQ.

“Gerrymandering tears apart those communities and stacks the deck in favor of entrenched powers who draw the lines to divide us. By taking action against gerrymandering, we’re protecting community voices and fundamental democratic values,” added Makhija, who was also the Democratic Nominee for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 2016.

Where does big data come into the picture?

When the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light, the American public realized just how much of their data is out there.

However, although private and sensitive, it represents only a tiny fraction of the data that is out there in the world about this nation’s citizens and residents – and all of it is available to politicians who want to use it to “gerrymander” the country into the most beneficial chunks.

“When I started doing this in the mid-70s, we were using handheld calculators, paper maps, pencils, and really big erasers. It was pretty primitive,” John Ryder, the former general counsel of the Republican National Committee told The Atlantic.

Today, it’s not a team just sketching things out on a map. Political camps hire an army of mathematicians, data scientists, and specialists who acquire and analyze a tonne of data to help the group find out exactly which sections of people, right down to the house, should be part of one territory and not another.

According to Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, “certainly, technology has gotten a lot more sophisticated, and it’s enabled map drawers to draw much more durable gerrymanders than they have in the past. That’s because state mapmakers now know a lot more about voters. That’s just an extension of the big data revolution that you also see in marketing and other politics.”

There’s a boatload of data that is available today. Think about it. Social media aside, governments have access to financial data such as transactions and credit scores, census, data from polls and responses on social media, and even information about income, revenues and profits of business owners, marital status – everything.

The big data revolution makes it an exciting game, however, today’s voters need to fight it.

“Gerrymandering is designed to skew election results away from the will of the people. If you believe everyone’s vote should count, then you need to fight against gerrymandering,” Mignon Fogarty, Podcaster and NYT bestselling author told TechHQ.