Saturday, March 17, 2018

Across Many Aprils

When I was in elementary and middle school in Virginia in the 1970s, we learned about the Civil War from many sources, including battlefield visits. The title of one book has stay with me, because Across Five Aprils is a very handy mnemonic for the dates that bracket this horrible rift, from Fort Sumter to the Appomattox Court House: April 22, 1861 to April 9, 1865.

In many ways, of course, the war never ended. I first learned of the war through a southern lens, but neither my teachers nor my community embraced the Lost Cause continuation of the conflict, as I later learned many thousands still do. Even where I live today, in a part of Massachusetts where nearly every town boasts a Union Street and an honor roll of those who defended the United States against its most serious (to date) insurgency, the Confederate Battle flag sometimes flies ... and more so since the 2016 ascendency of white supremacists.

As odd as it is to have "traitor" flags this far north of the Mason-Dixon line, it is even stranger to know that the Confederacy is somewhat widely celebrated several thousand miles south of the South, in Brazil, where "refugees" of the war's end moved in order to continue their "right" to enslave others. At the time the war ended and the 1863 de jure emancipation took effect, slavery was still legal in Brazil, as it would be until 1888. Of course, nobody knew how long it would last, nor that it would last longer there than anywhere in the Americas, but it seemed to these deplorable folks that it was a place where they could their "lifestyle," as this form of oppression came to be known.


The government of Brazil encouraged this migration by offering free land in parts of São Paulo and elsewhere, mainly in that first decade following the end of the war. It was already illegal to import slaves to Brazil, but some of the migrants brought with them "servants" who were free only in name and others managed to purchase humans already in the country. Following the success of Brazil's emancipation movement in 1888, of course, those who had not returned home or moved elsewhere found some way to adapt to a new reality without legal slavery.

I was thinking of this strange history yesterday, as I was exploring a large-format map of Brazil with a Brazilian friend who did not know the story. He did know the city of Anápolis, Goiás, which I had read was the main target of the migration. As I looked for information about it, I learned that the São Paulo towns of Santa Bárbara D'Oeste and Americana were more important destinations.

I also learned some of the details mentions above, and one more startling fact: the Confederado culture is still widely celebrated among descendants of those migrants! Two recent articles describe the persistence of the annual commemorations of the confederacy -- more than 150 Aprils later: Dixie Roots and A Slice of the Confederacy describe the celebrations and questions of racism of both the past and the present in both countries.
Photo: Associated Press. Apologies for inclusion of the insurgency flag, which I usually avoid sharing because of the racist intent with which it is usually displayed. The juxtaposition with U.S. and Brazil flags, however, captures this story perfectly. It brings to mind the thought I always have when I see the Confederate and U.S. flags together: "Choose a side!"

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Democracy Geeks

Image: HOTLITTLEPOTATO for Wired magazine.
From Schoolhouse Rock and whatever amount of civics classes have survived the regimes of high-stakes testing in our schools, many of us have gained the impression that in the United States, voters choose their politicians. If we have a more sophisticated understanding, we understand that the first draft of the Constitution disenfranchised most of the population, but that amendments expanded the franchise, first by race and then by sex. We might remain (rightfully) cynical about the manipulation of voters and by the insidious advantages of incumbency, but we think of the general direction of influence to be:
voters --> politicians
Frequent readers of this blog will know that I have written quite a lot about the pernicious effects of gerrymandering, a way of manipulating district boundaries to gain partisan advantage, so that the selection process is reversed:
politicians --> voters
I encourage those with curiosity and perhaps insomnia to browse all of my gerrymandering posts (this link is chronological and will include this post).

More importantly, though, I want to point to two outstanding resources about the brilliant people -- teams combining mathematical, statistical, legal, and geographic expertise -- who are fighting back. And it is a fight, especially in Pennsylvania, where some state legislators are defying courts at all levels, setting up a constitutional crisis that borders on a coup d'état in my opinion.

The first of these is the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group at Tufts University, led by Dr. Moon Duchin (shown left). I learned of the group when our BSU Department of Mathematics arranged for her recent visit to our campus. She took time out from a very busy day of working with the governor of Pennsylvania to present a talk entitled Math, Data Algorithms, and Voting Rights. She explained her group's very sophisticated approach to the problem of demonstrating that a given pattern voting districts is unfair in a statistically significant way.

She is an ideal spokesperson for this work; in just an hour she presented her group's approach in a way that was simple enough that students with no prior background in the subject understood her, but sophisticated enough that I now understand the problem at a much higher level. And I can tell that there is a lot more to learn! Writer John Winters of our own University News team in turn did an excellent job of capturing the key ideas of her presentation in the article I cite above.

For me, the greatest take-away from Dr. Duchin's talk was the idea that mathematicians can generate millions of alternative districting maps and compare any given map to that population of possibilities. This method definitively identifies schemes that are contrived for partisan benefit. We also learned that the benefit is up to 2x a party's actual vote share. That is, the theoretical maximum number of seats a party can gain by manipulating the maps is two times their share in the population. A party with a 30-percent share of votes can win 60 percent of seats, and a party with 50 percent or more can get ALL of the seats.

This leads to an excellent article that explains the Pennsylvania situation in some detail. Wired journalist Issie Lapowski's profile of The Geeks Who Put a Stop to Pennsylvania's Partisan Gerrymandering is a cogent lesson on the interactions of geography, history, politics, law and mathematics in this sordid and important story.

Update (June 25, 2018)

Today a U.S. Supreme Court whose 5-4 majority was made possible only by the racial bias of Sen. Mitch McConnell upheld race-based gerrymandering in Texas, but that 5-4 majority.

The Fraught Fifty

Map by Neil Freeman, 2012
Click to enlarge
When Neil Freeman's imaginative map of the United States was first tossed over my digital transom last week, I noticed the names of some of the larger areas. I was aware that he had divided the territory in such a way as to make them all equal in population. But I mainly noticed the names of some of the larger imagined states, such as Ogallala, and was immediately put in mind of other continent-scale efforts at regionalization, including the famous Nine Nations of North America.

Although the names he applies to the map reveal a profound understanding of what geographers call sense of place, Freeman began his project with something more practical in mind: addressing a somewhat subtle aspect of voter suppression. On his presciently-named blog Fake is the New Real, he explained the iterative process by which began to define his states, and goes on to describe some of the detailed considerations. Although he insisted that the map is primarily a work of art, he was careful to provide a very cogent, geographically-informed list of advantages and disadvantages were the map to be adopted.

I learned of the map from a much more recent article by blogger Josh Jones, who discusses the map in the context of more recent conversations about gerrymandering. Together, the two writers provide a lot of thought-provoking observations about the reasons for the original two-senator-per-state rule and about its implications for presidential elections. Their work exemplifies geography in plain sight -- a reality that seems so simple that it escapes notice, but that is in fact deeply complicated and even fraught.

Crunching the As-Is Numbers

I had long ago been introduced to the idea that the disparate size of the states results in wide disparities in the degree to which residents of each state are represented in the Senate. Relative to Californians or Texans, for example, residents of Wyoming have a much greater likelihood of having met a senator in person, and they certainly have a greater likelihood of gaining the attention of a senator's staff members.

It was not until reading Jones' article that I realized that with a few minutes on a spreadsheet, I could quantify the effect of these disparities on the representation by party. Some academics dismiss Wikipedia as a resource, but for this exercise it was perfectly appropriate. I looked up the current membership of the Senate, which lists members in a tabular format that was easy to copy into a spreadsheet. Those wishing to check on this list after end of this year will need to check the permanent entry for the 115th Congress, but the current list can always be used to update this exercise. Ambitious and curious readers could even work their way backward through previous years to get a sense of how the patterns I have quantified may have changed over time.

The spreadsheet is available to view, and is entitled Is the Senate -- In Effect -- Gerrymandered? I use the phrase "in effect" because the imbalance I describe does not result from gerrymandering in the widely-understood sense of manipulating the boundaries of voting districts to gain disproportionate representation. Nor does it fall into the more widely-used sense in which experts use the term: the manipulation of other aspects of voting regulations to gain partisan advantage. So the situation lacks the element of intentionality that we see in such notorious cases as are currently being contested with respect to seats in the House of Representatives.

So what is the imbalance like? It turns out that the two major parties tend to represent states of different sized populations. Each represents some big states -- Republican Texas but Democratic New York and California. Each also represents some very small states -- Wyoming Republican and Rhode Island Democratic, for example. Quite a few states of various sizes have split representation in the Senate -- Colorado, South Dakota, and Vermont, for example. This was the situation when I lived in Maryland years ago, and I think it can have real benefits for voters and for the decorum of the legislature.

In aggregate, though, the fact that one party tends to dominate states with smaller populations means that residents of those states have relatively greater representation in the Senate. In the spreadsheet, I allocated the populations of each state to the party of its senators, splitting the population evenly in those 1-1 states. The result is representation of 141.4 million residents by Republicans and 173.1 million residents by Democrats.

Because there are fewer Democrats than Republicans in the Senate (45 versus 53), each Senator represents a very different number of residents -- 3.8 million versus 2.7 million on average. Even more dramatically, the two independent senators represent just under a half million residents each.

What does this mean for policy, and for the idea of government of, by, and for the people? In practical terms, it means that a minority party has majority representation in both houses of Congress. Because votes in the Electoral College are allocated according to the allocation of these seats, the diminished influence of voters from large-population states directly affects presidential elections as well.

Lagniappe: DC & PR

These calculations do not include citizens in two major jurisdictions who get no Congressional representation at all -- my home town of Washington, D.C. and the internal colony of Puerto Rico. With 646,000 and 3.7 million people respectively, these unrepresented areas are equivalent in population to quite a few of the smaller states. Lack of representation has resulted in decades of annoyances, inconveniences and humiliations for the citizens of D.C., and has recently become a matter of life and death for citizens of Puerto Rico.
When this design became available, the mayor gladly sent me a sample.
To this day, the political affiliation of driver can be ascertained with some certainty by whether or not they use this tag. The slogan, of course, refers to a bit of a set-to we had in Boston in 1773.
A non-partisan approach to the rights of these citizens would result in statehood, and this would likely diminish the partisan imbalance currently found in both houses. It is for precisely this reason, however, that statehood will likely not be granted to either colony in my lifetime.


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