Maptastic (ep 2): How map makers will win the 2020 US election | FT


We’re going to look at how
elections can be won and lost based on the decisions of some
of the most important people in politics – the map-makers
that draw the electoral boundaries. We’ll explore some examples
from America’s past and its present
to understand more about the power of
these election maps. Let’s start by looking at just
some of the basic principles involved. We’ve got these Tiddlywinks
here to help us see what some of those problems are. So when we’re talking
about election maps, people don’t normally think
of it in terms of points. But that’s what we’re
actually visualising, isn’t it, is information about
individuals and how they voted. Exactly. And one of the big challenges of
not just election maps but maps in general is how
we take information from individuals who
voted, in this case, and convert that into
information about areas. Now, that’s something
that geographers call the modifiable
aerial unit problem. If we modify our aerial
unit, which is essentially the areas that we’re
going to group people into – in this case it’s
these chips here that we’re going
to pool together – if we group them
together in different ways, we’re going to get a different
answer to the question that we’re asking. And actually,
fundamentally, there isn’t a perfect answer to this. So we’re going to keep moving
stuff around all the time. So we’re going to have a look
now at these imaginary voters that we have here
who have all voted for different political parties. And the first thing
about this problem is that there is a
problem of scale. So as you change the size
of the area, you know, the colour with the
most counters changes as you’re sizing the area. You can see that on the
summary results here, we’re changing who’s the
overall winner simply by varying the size of the area. And this actually
is also a function a bit of the density
of the points as well. So it may be that
in a rural area you could get away with a very
big area for our constituency or district, but not
many people live in it. If you did the same
thing in an urban area, you’re going to be exacerbating
potential issues in a way that you wouldn’t be in the
rural because, you know, people are much
more tightly packed. There’s much more variety
and diversity in the way that people are voting. As these areas get bigger,
we can see quite clearly – from yellow to red to blue –
it’s easy to see how the area size can completely change
your view of whether an area is affiliated to one particular
political organisation or another. So what we’re going to do now
is take all of these counters back off the screen
and just go focus down to four imaginary voters. So if we take this fictitious
voting area here – so we’ve got an imaginary
area that we’re going to populate
with four voters – just four voters to
keep this nice and simple. And we want to divide this area
just into two summary areas. Where we draw the line
makes a big difference. If we draw the line width
ways across the screen, we’ve got a perfect balance
of two in each area. Because people aren’t
dispersed evenly, if we just change the
orientation of this line and divide it the other
way, we end up with 1 and 3. So we’ve changed
the number of voters in each area just based on
where the line’s being drawn. That’s okay when
everybody’s voting yellow. The issue starts when we
take two of these yellows away and say, well,
actually, they’re voting red. And now what happens is that
the line makes a big difference to the outcome of our
imaginary election, even just with four voters. With the line oriented
this way, this side is 100 per cent yellow, and
over here it’s two thirds red, one third yellow. What’s going to happen
when we change our line? We’ve actually completely
reversed the scenario. This zone out on the left-hand
side is now 100 per cent red, and this zone over here is now
two-thirds yellow and one-third red. So this is an example
of the zoning problem. And the reason why this
is so significant when we’re thinking about
social characteristics like how people vote – people
with similar characteristics tend to live closer together. But what we’re actually
dealing with here in the kind of
real world examples is how people with similar
views tend to cluster together. You hear this all the
time about target seats and so on in elections. That’s important,
because then it makes it much more significant
where these lines get drawn. That’s something that
the Electoral Reform Society looked at recently. They produced a really
interesting animation of this. Just by rotating the zones,
you can change completely the outcome of the winner
in each of the zones. And this is starting to
look more like a real world example now here. As you say, people tend to
live closer to other groups. So we can see patterns –
kind of spatial patterns – in the layout of the voters,
but they may not always be reflected in the
eventual outcome. No, exactly. So far, we have been
more or less randomly rotating the geometry. Where this gets
really interesting is when someone
actually has control of where to put our voting
boundaries, our election boundaries. And that’s something
that’s particularly associated with the
US because of the way that the districting
system works in the US. So in the US, this
isn’t a new thing. This is Elbridge Gerry. He was a founding father
but also initiated a whole new genre of
political manipulation with what he did with
voting boundaries. He was organising the
Massachusetts voting boundaries, and he did
something fairly unusual which produced a map that the
local newspaper satirised. Can you explain what’s
going on here, James? I suppose it’s brilliant in the
context of ensuring the result would go his way – was to
realise that if he created a district that consolidated the
power of his particular party by ensuring that everyone who
votes for him are in the same district and then those in
districts where maybe there are a greater variety of
voting intentions – some people may go
one way or the other – if he puts all the people that
support him in the same area, he will secure victory. And the strange effect
of doing this, of course, is that you end up with
very oddly shaped areas as he tries to contort
the map to fit his means. And in this case,
the cartoonist said it looked like a fictional
mythical creature – a salamander. And that’s why we end up
with the phrase, gerrymander – as in gerrymandering,
which is the word we use to refer to when people
are manipulating election districts in this way. So I guess people
might be surprised when they see that
that was 200 years ago that that might
have been something that was nipped in the bud. But we can see examples
of this still all over the US electoral map here. We’ve got a map of
the US here where we’re going to pick up on maybe
five of the very evocative names for some of these areas. One of my favourites
here is The Duck, which is Ohio’s 4th
congressional district – which obviously just
looks like a duck. It’s a really peculiar shape. Even more odd, in some ways,
is this Snake by the Lake, as it’s known, because
that stretches from Toledo all the way over to Cleveland. It’s actually much narrower than
this, because most of this area is actually Lake
Erie, and there really is just a very thin
sliver of land going all this way across Ohio here. If we pan out over
towards the East Coast, we’ve got a couple of
really interesting ones. This one is Goofy kicking Donald
Duck, which is in Pennsylvania. And you can see these areas
are barely touching each other. It looks like two
completely different areas. Exactly. And the strategy here is
– just imagine on the map – go back to the counters
we had on the screen at the beginning of this. They’re just trying to draw a
line without breaking it around the counters of the colour
that represent their particular party. Okay. And then just south of this
fantastic one is probably my favourite name
of the lot, I think, the Broken Winged
Pterodactyl of Baltimore, which is Maryland’s 3rd
congressional district, I believe. The thing that’s really odd
about all of these examples is they have such a
long perimeter given the overall area. They’re so windy, just like
with Gerry’s original example. From a geographer’s
perspective, what we really love is very compact areas. So squares or circles
would be the ideal, but, of course, the world
is much more complicated than that, and so you
get oddly-shaped areas. But these are just
incredibly hard to justify. They just look
completely unnatural from a social perspective. And really the only
justification is they’re trying to maximise their voter share
in this particular district. The people responsible for
delineating these boundaries is the governing
state legislature. So if, for example, a Republican
state has got a responsibility to redraw the boundaries,
it’s much more likely that you’re going
to see boundaries that reflect a better
potential outcome for the incumbent party. This is where, actually,
politics kind of overlaps with the independence
of statistical authority and things like that. In the US, they’ve got
a census coming up. Knowing where people are is
actually an important basis for where you can
draw these boundaries and how many boundaries you get. And you end up with this kind
of tit-for-tat thing going on where if they manage to
beat this and change party representing the area,
the boundaries would be redrawn again. There is one word of caution
with this, though, isn’t there, because we’ve already seen
that regular shapes might not be the best way of
making sure that we’re capturing appropriate
community characteristics. And actually, if we
zoom back out again and go over to Illinois,
there’s a very famous example in Chicago called The
Earmuffs, which is, again, on the face of it, this
looks like another one of those really oddly-shaped
gerrymandered districts. This one’s a bit different,
though, because this one was the result of a federal
instruction to give Hispanics greater voting representation. And so these two areas
here on The Earmuffs are both majority Hispanic
areas, which, in isolation, if these were split
apart, probably would suffer from the symptoms
of our counters earlier. I mean, one of the interesting
differences between the US and, say, the UK, is that
the US, because of the way the population
spread across the US, it was starting from
scratch in many ways drawing these boundaries and
planning cities and so on. In a country like the UK,
we’ve had 1,000-plus years of community groupings through
things like parishes and things like that. So the UK system has grown a bit
more organically in the sense that you might have
had a parish, which is a relatively small group of
people, that perhaps reflects people with similar interests
in a very local area. Those parishes maybe
get merged together to then create these
larger electoral wards and constituencies and so on. So that’s the difference between
a bottom-up approach, which is just something that’s emerged
over time, and in the US’s case they’ve kind of
allowed themselves to have this kind of
top-down approach, which is to allow whoever’s in charge
to redraw the boundaries as much as they can. This still, I think,
remains fairly untypical, because most of the examples
are the ones where the governing legislature has made some
decisions that, perhaps, swing it more in
its favour than not. Probably an area that’s come
up most recently in that space has been North Carolina,
which has come up with some new boundaries for the
2020 House of Representatives election. The really interesting
thing with North Carolina – if you really want to see
the impact of gerrymandering and what it does to
election results, North Carolina is
a great example. Because if we look at the
results of the popular vote – so that’s the
total number of votes for either party in the 2018
House of Representatives election, this is a
really tight race. There’s less than 2
percentage – there’s 2 percentage points in
it, a very small majority for the Republicans. So if we had a
fair electoral map, we would expect to see something
very similar to this in terms of seat representation. But when we look at what
the seat representation is based on that popular vote,
this is an amazing picture, isn’t it? So this is largely a result
of gerrymandered boundaries. What does this look
like on the map? Let’s take the
House seats and see. So this is Carolina’s
congressional district map, with each congressional
district coloured in according to a seat. And so there’s 10 seats
for the Republicans, three for the Democrats. But there’s some
geographical patterns here. One thing you can’t
help but notice is that the blue areas – the
three blue areas, this one’s an exception – these two
here are quite small. This one looks like it’s really
been gerrymandered, right? It has this very
odd shape to it. And this has been an issue for
some time in North Carolina, because there’s the city of
Asheville over here in North Carolina, if we just fade
the map away a little bit to see it, you can see
this boundary runs right through the middle,
splitting it in two, which seems like a
very odd thing to do. Well, urban areas tend to be
where more liberal voters live, and rural areas tend to
be more conservative. So a good sign of whether you’re
trying to split a liberal vote is if you’re trying to
split an urban area, and if you’re trying to
split the conservative vote, then you look for
splits in more rural. One of my favourite stories that
came out of Asheville was that some of the Democrat
voters were so frustrated, effectively having their votes
lost by this arrangement, that they organised their own
gerrymander 5K run where they ran the route of the district
boundary as it winds its way through the city. Legal pressures have forced
the governing legislature to redraw these boundaries
because they wanted to have a new set of
boundaries that’s more representative and less biased. So those boundaries
have been proposed. These are the ones that were
approved by the state court. We can see some big
changes on here. So Asheville is no longer split. It’s part of a bigger
congressional district now over on the western side. It’s not surprising that a map
made by Republicans still tends to favour Republicans. So if we project what
the 2020 results might look like on these
new boundaries, we’ll see that there are
some changes, but not a huge number of changes. We go from 10 and three
to eight and five. So we’ve got five Democrat
areas now on here. But this still
isn’t particularly representative of our original
Tiddlywinks – of the people who are actually
voting in this area. If you listen to US
election pundits and things, particularly those
on the Democrat side, they often say it’s a
state with a tough map. It’s a hard thing to break. It’s like running uphill. They’ve got to not
only get a majority, but they’ve got to get a really
big majority to overcome some of these entrenched issues. So that would be a majority
in terms of the popular vote – they’ve got to push through. 51 per cent won’t
cut it, they’ve got to really push through. There’s also a scale issue
at play here, isn’t there, because this is just 13
congressional districts in quite a wide area. We can get a sense of how
some of the characteristics of our voters are being lost. If we drill down in level to
these smaller areas called counties and look at how the
counties voted in the 2016 presidential
election, and you can see we’ve got a slightly
different map here, because suddenly what was
previously entirely red, you can actually see we’ve
got a significant Democrat enclave here. We can finally see the Democrat
voters of Asheville over here. And again, even this is a
victim of the scale problem, because if we were to drill
down within individual counties, you’d still see different
coloured Tiddlywinks. And I think that
scale thing is what tends to get forgotten
sometimes when we’re talking about elections is that,
actually, we are always showing the majority
view on these maps. And so if you keep
zooming in right back to the individual level, you
are going to see variety, even within a family, you
might vote different ways. It’s always a case that
these maps show the winners, potentially, but they are
a crucial basis for kind of maximising your chances. So if I were a Democrat
strategist coming into power, I would look at this map and
I would redraw the boundaries again to capture
this one and this one and maybe, as it
happened here, split up some of these red
areas that don’t have the same number
of Republican voters as the blue areas to ensure
that Republicans still win through any future election. We’ve just coloured
these areas red or blue. But in reality, they’d
all be varying shades of purple, just
kind of a mixture of voters that might lean
largely one way or another, or to varying degrees. Does that mean
that gerrymandering is kind of particularly suited
to the first past the post system? I think so, just because
you’re essentially creating one representative
for one area. And it can be a
relatively small area. So thinking about the scaling
issue and the zooming out, if you imagine you
had, hypothetically, say this is the whole
area here we see. We say, well, actually,
you’re entitled to five representatives
for the whole map. We’re not too worried about
where the boundaries are. We’re just going to say
for that state or whatever, you get five representatives. Those representatives
can be based on the proportion of votes won. I think the argument
against larger areas with proportional
representation in it is often back to this
thing about, well, am I representing my local
population’s needs and values? So if it’s a big area
that’s quite heterogeneous – so there’s a lot of extra
people in it, lots of variety – is one of your
five representatives going to be as invested in
that as a representative that is for a smaller,
more local population? Absolutely. And then talking about
that local problem about knowing where to draw
some of those local boundaries. That brings us back to
this point about who’s drawing the boundaries. So you might argue… because in the UK, there’s a
completely different system. There’s an independent
commission… there’s four
organisations, actually, that cover the whole of the UK. They are independent of the
governing political party. Yeah. And so they essentially
have a series of rules that they
need to follow – so a certain number of people
per parliamentary constituency, in this case. Certain areas there
are exceptions to that – so some of the
Scottish islands wouldn’t make sense to kind
of tag onto the mainland, so the number of people in
their particular electorate is smaller than some
of the mainland places. There is a maximum size in
terms of geographic area that the places can be. But you can imagine
how hard a job it is, because as soon as you
start redrawing these things and shifting, you shift
one thing one way, then it does mean another
one has to shift as well. I mean, I wouldn’t want the
job, because no one’s got to… it’s not something that anyone
will be completely happy with, and there’ll always be
claims and counterclaims about advantage and disadvantage
one way or the other. But in the US, it’s quite clear
that gerrymandering is still very much rife,
and part of that is because there is this lack
of an independent body. Yes. Exactly. That’s governing the standards. And if I were in
control of it, it’s a good way of ensuring you
keep your job, isn’t it? So it’s not in anyone’s interest
to change the boundaries if it’s going to affect
their election results. It’s going to be
interesting to see this, because I think they’ve
been several attempts to bring a bill before the
House of Representatives to actually introduce
such a commission as part of electoral reform. But it’s never been
voted on before. There don’t seem to be that
many signs of it happening soon either. Yeah, and I suspect even if
they get further with it, you are still going to get back
to these fundamental questions of what is representation? And is an area best
represented one way or another by a small population with
someone who’s very committed to them or a larger one? And there’ll always
be exceptions, and those exceptions
then get used to maybe change some other
areas that people might have been a bit happier with. So no one’s going
to end up saying, thank you for such a
wonderful, neutral map? No, I don’t think
that’ll ever happen. Thank you very much, James. No problem.




Comments
  1. Mixed member system seems the best to me. Provides a local representative but also additional members to make it representative

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