Jonathan Mattingly is the chair of mathematics at Duke and an alumnus of the NC School of Science and Math

What began as an undergraduate project looking at how to create a “typical” map of congressional districts expanded to a national investigation for Duke mathematics chair Jonathan Mattingly. He was generous enough to speak to me about some of his recent work in mathematically investigating gerrymandering and the communication which followed between lawmakers and statisticians.

By strategically manipulating certain lines, it is possible to ensure a certain number of seats for one party even if that party does not win the majority vote. What “Team Gerrymandering” set out to do was to create an algorithm which would create the least biased map possible. The use of the term “fair” is complex in this instance, as politics and geography are very rarely simple enough to be split fairly.

An example of a mathematical model of precincts and districts.

In Wisconsin, the algorithm which “Team Gerrymandering” developed was used to prove that the voting districts were being disproportionately drawn in favor of the Republican votes, a trend which had was also been seen after the 2015 elections in North Carolina districts.

By strategically manipulating certain lines, it is possible to ensure a certain number of seats for one party even if that party does not win the majority vote. What “Team Gerrymandering” set out to do was to create an algorithm which would create the least biased map possible. The use of the term “fair” is complex in this instance, as politics and geography are very rarely simple enough to be split fairly.

The algorithm developed was then submitted as an brief amicus curae brief and used (it was used as a piece of appellate evidence) in the Wisconsin case Whitford vs. Bill. case. The mathematicians hoped to , in an attempt to prove that the districting of Wisconsin is an outlier in comparison to thousands of other mapping simulations run under their algorithm, which provide statistically sound data.

A problem such as this is a prime example of the bridge between the Humanities and STEM fields, which become increasingly separate as the level of expertise rises. as this truly bridges the humanities and STEM fields:, a solution has been found, but effectively communicating it was not as simple.

When asked about explaining and publishing this work in order to submit it as evidence, Mattingly admitted that it was, at times difficult, but it only further proved how important the effort is.

“It starts with a conversation. I’m willing to explain it, but you have to be willing to listen.”

A team full of lawyers looking to win a case is arguably a highly motivated audience, but this is not always the case. Mattingly, who is a 1988 graduate of the NC School of Science and Math which I attend, mentioned being at parties and hearing people state, “Oh, I’m no good at math, it’s just numbers and letters to me,” but he could never recount anyone saying “Oh, I don’t see the point in using language, or reading a dictionary.” These may seem like harmless comments, but a subconscious form of selective ignorance is still selective ignorance.

In light of the gerrymandering case, and “Team Gerrymandering’s” involvement in it, we are called to think again about the importance of fields we are not necessarily involved in, especially the STEM fields. What other patterns aren’t we noticing because we failed to look? Where else could we be improving if we were willing to listen? If we both don’t try, then we aren’t getting anywhere.”

The results of the Whitman vs Gill case are expected in June of 2018, and until then, the conversation must continue.

UPDATE: On Jan. 9, a federal court panel struck down North Carolina’s Congressional district maps on the grounds that they had been gerrymandered to favor Republicans. Mattingly commented.

Guest post by Paris Geolas, a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Math