July 23, 2015

Gerrymandering | We drew a map to a better place

The English speaking world, in all of its magnificence, has a word to describe almost everything, and a very characteristic and organic way of adding them to the current parlance. Laughable, that the moonbeam caused some arouse. Three words invented by Shakespeare. But not only had the greatest writer of the language sufficient authority to do so. The digital age introduced a number of concepts that are all too familiar to all of us.

You write online periodically? Perhaps in a blog.

Broadcast episodes to the Internet? A typical podcast.


The political world is not exempt from this phenomenon. In this area, probably the single most important English neologism (that has NO translation in many languages!) is Gerrymandering. Coined as a pejorative term by a Boston newspaper to describe the newly proportioned voting districts for a local election (proposed by a local politician named Gerry), it quickly became a mainstay in the political sphere.

Why is Gerrymandering important then? The answer is so simple, it is almost tragic. Acquiring relevant data about the political inclinations of the population in certain areas of a particular territory, one can create majorities that do not represent the proportional votes cast by the agents in the election. With sufficient tinkering, pluralities can be turned into supermajorities, close contests can be tipped one way or the other, even losing parties can emerge victorious with this strategy.

The technique of course, works much better in voting systems that favor First-Past-the-Post (a future topic to be discussed!), over proportional representation, and the logic is pretty straightforward: A district that elects one and only one representative can be won with a simple plurality (1 vote extra than the second place allows the winning party to take it all), whereas systems that favor proportional representation will do their best to represent the political bodies with broadly the same percentages (most often seen in Legislatures). With clever (and sometimes sneaky) district delimitations, one can be almost assured to maximize won seats.

In places that allow for partisan district delimitations, it is not uncommon to see districts that flow like rivers only to turn into a couple of lakes here and there, when in reality they are overlaid exactly over highways and capture the complete population of several small towns, to force a particular electoral result.

Other times, the much more sparsely rural population is grouped with fractions of more densely populated cities to water down the effects of either of the two groups (depending of who is in power, naturally).

But everything presented above shows Gerrymandering in a somewhat negative light, when there are very good reasons (and examples) for positive Gerrymandering. Multicultural societies with clear minorities, for example, benefit tremendously from positive Gerrymandering. Creating representations that cater exclusively to the needs of the people, that would otherwise go unrepresented cannot be stressed enough, especially if the political system forces competing parties to work together to form coalition governments.

So let’s all remember this one, because it’s definitely “food for thought” for anyone out there working in the political field, whether they’re candidates, party members or part of a political staff. Because at the end of the day, it’s not all about the Internet, the number of likes or the engagement rate. It’s all about strategy!


Erasmo Rigoberto Gonzalez

Data Scientist

Photo Source: reddit.com