New Audio Available for Media Use: Cornell’s David Shmoys on How to Design Fair and Representative Legislative Districts


Ashley Smith
Public Affairs Coordinator

New Audio Available for Media Use: Cornell’s David Shmoys on How to Design Fair and Representative Legislative Districts

BALTIMORE, MD, January 18, 2022 – New audio is available for media use featuring legislative district design expert David Shmoys. He is a professor of Business Management and Leadership Studies at Cornell University. He teaches in the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering, Department of Computer Science, Center for Data Science for Enterprise and Society. And he is a member of INFORMS, the largest association for the decision and data sciences.

In this audio content, Shmoys discusses how to design fair and representative legislative districts. All sound should be attributed to David Shmoys. There are 4 questions and responses. These responses were provided on January 13, 2022.

Question 1: What have you learned from your research on the design of legislative districts?

Time Cue: 00:37, Soundbite Duration: 00:56

Transcription: “The common perception is that gerrymandering means odd-shaped districts that are engineered to gain partisan advantage. First, if we model the fairness of the statewide redistricting plan using recent historical data, to have the expected share of seats gained and to attract the expected number of votes statewide, then even constraining districts to be well-shaped, so-called compact districts, it is possible for each party to gain significant partisan advantage. On the other hand, we have the optimization tools to help. For example, independent commissions achieve districts that are much fairer than current times. But there are limits. There are some states in which the minority party is sufficiently, uniformly spread out that there is a kind of natural gerrymandering that takes place, and we see where there can be so-called multi-member districts where each district is big enough for two or three representatives one can achieve an even fairer outcome.”


Question 2: What is the current problem with the ways in which legislative districts are mapped out?

Time Cue: 01:49, Soundbite Duration: 00:46

Transcription: “Each state has its own set of problems but with the same core issues.  Each state can set up its own rules and govern the process for deciding the district map for the next decade. So, our elected representatives choose their voters rather than the other way around. And the extent to which data exists to model and optimize for a particular outcome, is one consequence of the revolution of computing of the past quarter of a century, so that this power in deciding the maps has greatly increased. We have seen the Supreme Court throw out maps for states where even though the vote was split roughly 50/50 statewide, one party controlled an overwhelming faction of the seats. Setting up statewide independent commissions is helping improve the situation, but still has its limitations.”

Question 3: What are the challenges for designing fair and representative legislative districts?

Time Cue: 02:33, Soundbite Duration: 00:52

Transcription: “This is what we call a multi-objective problem. There are many goals that are trying to achieve a balance in how well we can do for each. Of course, the primary question is having a system in which statewide votes translates into an appropriate representation in government. But it is not just the question of an appropriate translation for the two major parties, but there are fundamental issues that dictate that members of various minority demographics have the opportunity to be fairly represented in government. And on another axis, there is an important issue in terms of so-called competitive districts. If a particular district has a relatively close balance of votes for the two major parties, this incentivized the parties to nominate centrist candidates. But in districts where one party is sure to win, it allows for more extreme candidates to be successful and can accelerate the current partisan divide that we see facing the country at the moment.” 

Question 4: What is the best process for designing legislative districts that are fair and representative of the people who live there?

Time Cue: 03:34, Soundbite Duration: 00:49 

Transcription: “We believe that a system that combines the two elements together would be ideal.  First, if there are multi-member districts, with say typically three-member districts, or for example in New York having 27 districts, you’d have nine three-member districts. The voting in each of these multi-member districts should be done with a variant of ranked choice like is done in Maine or New York City or San Francisco, with a mechanism such as simple, transferrable vote, which assures that within a district, the outcome, that is how many of the three seats, or perhaps the portion of party-line votes for each party. By using our optimization tools, we can produce a portfolio of options that look like differing trade-offs that that can be evaluated by an independent commission to achieve results, that achieve for example, the right balance of majority-minority districts in addition to a proportionate fairness statewide. But most importantly, this multi-member district approach limits the ability of partisan interests to achieve the kind of disproportionate gains that we’ve seen in a number of states in the past, and in the plans being put forward in this current cycle.”

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INFORMS advances and promotes the science and technology of decision making to save lives, save money, and solve problems. As the largest association for the decision and data sciences, INFORMS members support organizations and governments at all levels as they work to transform data into information, and information into insights that lead to more efficient, effective, equitable and impactful results. INFORMS’ 10,000+ members are comprised of a diverse and robust international community of practitioners, researchers, educators, and students from a variety of fields. 




Ashley Smith