Redistrict with math, not politics

Every 10 years the census is taken and then follows the job of reapportioning the voting districts in the state. This is a job done by the Legislature, and inevitably it is affected by the perspectives and desires of the members, especially the members in the majority party. Sometimes the results are quite extreme, and that is called gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is an old technique, first named in 1812 by the Boston Gazette to describe the efforts under Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry that created a state senatorial district in a fanciful shape said to resemble a salamander. Since then it has often been used by both Democrats and Republicans to create an advantage in redrawing voting districts. With unabashed creativity lines are drawn to form areas that aggregate one party and thin out the other.

In New Hampshire the districts in the southern tier of counties seem strangely and inefficiently drawn with District 9 extending from Richmond in Cheshire County to Bedford just east of Manchester in Hillsboro County. It includes 14 towns some, like Peterborough and Bedford, with substantial populations. Along the very southern tier is District 12 made up of six small towns, and above – sandwiched in between 9 and 12 – is 11 composed of 4 towns. Each of these districts is a string of towns rather than an efficient bloc.

One of the oddest district arrangements is the town of Litchfield – a light greenish-blue color on my map, closest to the color of District 22 – Pelham, Salem, Atkinson and Plaistow – but separated from it by Hudson and Londonderry as though cut adrift from its mainland.

State Rep. Jerry Knirk, of Carroll County, has introduced a bill (House Bill 320) designed in redraw district lines mathematically by a process known as optimization. He explains that the optimization process is a simple technique we use every day as we figure out the most efficient route to run errands or plan a trip using Expedia to find us the cheapest most direct and time-saving way from Miami, say, to San Francisco.

One of the most common examples, he says, of the optimization process is the problem of planning a fence enclosure to arrive at the greatest yet most compact area. If your goal is to fence an area of 400 square feet using 80 feet of fencing wire, the most efficient area is 20 by 20 feet. Thirty by ten feet gives an area of only 300 square feet with a less efficient use of interior space.

In redistricting by math, Knirk calls for the usual constraints used in the process. Town and ward boundaries must be respected. The towns and wards composing the district must be contiguous within the district, Districts must have a population equal to the target population. Then these data are entered into an algorithm, and the computer (like Expedia) figures out the most efficient way to create the districts. No people are involved in the process. No party registration is involved either. Knirk quotes Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California in 1972 said, "There is only one way to do reapportionment – feed into the computer all the factors except political registration."

Only in this way can we be sure of creating voting districts that aren’t tainted by partisanship.

Of course there will always be shifts from Republican to Democratic majorities in the Statehouse, but districting for political blocs should not be a factor in creating those shifts. The intention of districting is not to allow one party to pack the legislature. The intention is for all voters, whatever their party registration, to have the opportunity to be fairly represented.

Rep. Knirk’s bill is expected to be voted on in committee Tuesday, Feb. 14 and is likely to be taken up in the New Hampshire House on Thursday, Feb. 23. This is a bill we should all be talking about with our legislators.

Katharine Gregg lives in Mason.