Complex trade-offs persist in drawing fair election maps for purple PA

Professor's research helps students assess the trade-offs of election maps

Draw the Lines PA winners from GEOG 421 Population Geography gather in the Main Rotunda of the State Capitol in Harrisburg on Feb. 6.  Pictured from left to right: Ian Kennedy, Jacob Kaminski, Erin Arndt, David Thornburgh (president and CEO of Committee of Seventy), Nicole Rivera, Elizabeth Fowler, Bryce Buck, Matthew Plummer, Reed Repasky, Stephen Fowler, Chris Fowler. Credit: Draw the Lines PA/Justine VillereAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State Professor Christopher Fowler’s fall 2018 GEOG 421: Population Geography class won first place in the Higher-Ed division of the “Draw the Lines PA” statewide finals in February. For Fowler, the work on how to get better representation in Pennsylvania is just beginning.

“Draw the Lines is a rigorously nonpartisan civic engagement project that aims to prove that the people of Pennsylvania are ready, willing and able to take on a core task of democracy — drawing election maps,” said Chris Satullo, project director of Draw the Lines PA.

Satullo said the inaugural public mapping competition drew 1,500 participants who managed to finish 318 valid maps.

“Professor Fowler's class demonstrated to the fullest one of the tenets of Draw the Lines: Election maps are a democratic, deliberative exercise, not just a mathematical, technocratic exercise,” he said. “Of all the maps we received, the students of GEOG 421 did the most to root the lines they drew in community outreach and democratic dialogue. And they clearly had so much fun doing it that their entry was irresistible.”

Fowler’s GEOG 421 course emerged from his research focus in population geography.

“Population geography is all about how populations are configured in, and moving through space; migration, immigration, segregation and neighborhoods,” he said. “Gerrymandering is a perfect example; it is one of the most pressing issues of our time. I have wanted to do a lab on gerrymandering for a while, but the technical demands are significant.”

Last summer, Fowler found the Draw the Lines PA contest and software. Participating in the contest allowed Fowler to incorporate gerrymandering into the fall course offering, including lectures and lab sessions.

Gerrymandering 101

Gerrymandering is generally defined as dividing a region into election districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair advantage. Fowler sees it in a more nuanced way.

“Gerrymandering is any intentional manipulation of boundaries to achieve some purpose other than equalization of population across units,” he said. “Note that you can have positive gerrymandering where you manipulate in order to achieve some socially desirable outcome, for example, to create a district that increases minority representation.”

Fowler said he appreciates how Draw the Lines is not emphasizing a technological fix, but how to get good representation.

“Computers can be efficient but ignore things that are important to geographers like place, connectivity and meaning. That is something I feel very strongly about,” Fowler said, noting that technical solutions can be sneaky ways of gerrymandering.

Compactness — one of the most common quality metrics for examining districts — favors rural populations over their urban counterparts, explained Fowler. Competitiveness, another common metric, is easy to manipulate for partisan advantage, he said.

“Having lots of competitive districts would not necessarily mean that the people of Pennsylvania are getting good representation from their elected officials,” Fowler noted.

Values survey shaped the map

Fowler and his students had conversations in class about what they valued and what they wanted in terms of representation. It became clear to the students that districting is full of trade-offs, he said.

“For example, competitive districts reduce the number of voters who are represented by someone who shares their views,” Fowler said. “We would like to think that in competitive elections politicians will seek the middle ground, but the reality is that with low voter turn-out it is more effective to get out votes among your base.”

Competitive elections can produce moderates, but they are just as likely to produce outcomes where almost half the electorate feel like their views aren’t being represented, Fowler explained.

“Or, we could produce ideologically homogenous districts that wouldn’t be competitive at all, but where everyone in the district felt represented,” he said. “Then the problem is that incumbency becomes a huge advantage and those officials have zero incentive to compromise.”

Fowler said the classroom conversations forced the students and himself to face those contradictions and tradeoffs, which they then used for their survey. Survey participants had to wrestle with the same choices and indicate their preference among contrasting values, such as district compactness, competitiveness, ideological homogeneity, minority representation, and preservation of county and municipal boundaries.

Jacob Kaminsky, an Earth science and policy major, said he took the course to better understand the interactions between people and places.

“My biggest take-away from participating in the Draw the Lines contest was the values we placed as a class on our overall approach to creating a map,” Kaminsky said. “When making our map we kept three things in mind during each stage: people, place and respect.”

The lab assignment required each of the 18 students to get at least 10 responses to the “Creating a Better Map in Pennsylvania” districting survey they distributed online and administered during a home Penn State football game.

“We got 250 completed surveys, representing 37 of 67 counties, so we had pretty good coverage,” Fowler said.  “In many respects, if you want to know what the people in Pennsylvania think, you could do a lot worse than asking a crowd at a Penn State football game.”

Kaminsky said the central location of University Park and State College makes the region a good hub for collecting diverse values from people across the state.

“People aren’t always fond of taking surveys; I know I’m not,” Kaminski said. “But if I was with them in person, I would ask: ‘Do you believe that the district in which you live should be competitive for Democrats and Republicans?’ When the questions were posed in this fashion people were eager to answer them. I believe that it sparked questions in their minds and made them think about the topic of gerrymandering."

“Which was the whole point of the assignment,” said Fowler, “getting people talking about gerrymandering and what decisions they would make, knowing how complex it is.”

Why it matters

In completing their assignment, the students learned about civic engagement and how population geography matters, Fowler said.

“Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states where redistricting really matters,” he said. “Most states have either too small a population or are ideologically homogenous, but Pennsylvania is populous enough and purple enough that it matters here. On top of that, we have a very uneven population distribution, so changes in how you draw the districts can have significant effects.”

Fowler said a larger challenge with redistricting is to get people to see how gerrymandering can impact them regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.

“I really applaud Draw the Lines for seeing past the technicalities to the big picture. By choosing our entry, the judges showed that they valued what we did to get people talking about the issues above and beyond the technical quality of the final map,” Fowler said.

Still, Fowler cautioned against redistricting solely based on metrics that are in the news. Competitiveness, for example, is not by itself a good goal — it misses the role of incumbency, voter turnout, and whether the election is mid-term or presidential, said Fowler.

Last Updated March 28, 2019