Tomfoolery and Gerrymandering

This post was prompted by a recent US Supreme Court decision, but it also brought back some memories.

For 111 years, Burkard Polster and I wrote the weekly Maths Masters column for Melbourne’s Age newspaper, writing a total of 11111111 columns. (The title wasn’t of our choosing.) Our column began in print, as part of VCE Express in Monday’s education lift-out, which soon moved online. While in print, we were instructed to write “about 350 words”, just enough to say hello to a topic and then good bye. Once the column went online, however, we were granted a lot of license and took more: we would routinely submit well over a thousand words, illustrated with a number of Burkard’s beautiful graphics. It was also standard practice to be emailing drafts back and forth at midnight before the morning deadline. (Burkard: “Here’s the graphic I spent an hour on.” Marty: “It doesn’t work.” Burkard: “… Back in an hour.”) The payment for each column remained amusingly low; it was reminiscent of Calvin Trillin’s story of the Nation‘s editor offering to pay him in “the high two figures”. But of course we did the column as best we could as an end in itself. It was great fun to do, until it wasn’t, and it was exhausting.

Despite its original home, our column never really had anything to do with VCE. Other than the occasional polemic, we couldn’t find much worth saying about school mathematics, and so we wrote about whatever we wished, often on the standards but we were always on the lookout for new topics and good angles on old topics. Burkard, who actually knows some mathematics, always had maths topics ready to go, whereas I tended to look for human angles, obscure history and the like.

One column that I remember being particular fun to work on had the title above; it was also one of my favourite titles. Of course there is plenty of crazy and fun maths in voting systems, and we had other columns on the familiar paradoxical aspects. This column, however, was lighter on the maths. It was on the simpler scheming involved in gerrymandering and its tomfoolery partner, malapportionment.

Gerrymandering, as most readers will know, is the manipulation of electorate boundaries so as to increase the number of (likely) electorates won. In the picture below, for example, we have the 16 blue electors crowded into one snaky electorate, with the fewer, 14 red electors strategically spread to be the majority in two electorates.

With strong laws administered by the independent, justly respected and at times very funny Australian Electoral Commission, Australia has essentially no problems with gerrymandering. Malapportionment – the creation of electorates of significantly different population sizes – is another story. Malapportionment was a notorious aspect of Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen regime in the 1970s, and, along with other absurdities, is still an issue in Australia; our column was mostly about such occurrences. (And no, I ‘m not referring to the Senate.) We also discussed gerrymandering, which was and is rampant in America.

In America, the redistricting of congressional electorates is under the control of state politicians. These politicians then appoint lackeys to the redistricting boards, who do their best to jig things to their political party’s advantage. The results, referred to as partisan gerrymandering, are often hilarious:

Why can the politicians get away with this? Because the Supreme Court said they can. In a number of decisions beginning in 2004, the Supreme Court eventually ruled that partisan gerrymandering is non-justiciable. The power to redistrict is simply the spoils of political war. To quote Justice Kennedy from a 2006 case, on why courts could not better do the redistricting,

It should follow, too, that if a legislature acts to replace a court-drawn plan with one of its own design, no presumption of impropriety should attach to the legislative decision to act … Underlying this principle is the assumption that to prefer a court-drawn plan to a legislature’s replacement would be contrary to the ordinary and proper operation of the political process.


Compounding this madness, there is also racial gerrymandering, both for Evil and Good.  Evil racial gerrymandering involves the members of a racial minority being sprinkled throughout a number of electorates, so that in each electorate they will, as a block, have little electoral clout; think of the two minority blue guys outmanned by the red guys in the outer electorates. Good racial gerrymandering is done with the opposite intent, with the members of the minority grouped together so as to ensure the minority’s political clout in at least some electorates: think of the blue electorate above (but not so monochromatic). Good racial gerrymandering is generally lawful, while, through legislation and Court decisions, Evil racial gerrymandering is unlawful.

One can question the principles underlying Good racial gerrymandering, and there are typically “compelling interest” requirements for its application, but Evil racial gerrymandering is unarguably evil. So, good on the Courts for proscribing Evil racial gerrymandering. Except, of course, in practice there is a massive overlap between Evil racial gerrymandering and partisan gerrymandering, and the Court has no problem with the latter.


Last week, the inevitable happened. The Supreme Court decided Alexander v Smith, a case in which South Carolina Republicans were accused of Evil racial gerrymandering, and where the Republicans defended themselves by claiming to have been engaging in partisan gerrymandering. Predictably, the Court sided with the Republicans, overturning a lower court ruling. The basic argument? The Court “starts with a presumption that the legislature acted in good faith”. That is, if the legislature claims that they engaged in partisan gerrymandering – recall that partisan gerrymandering is the good faith version in this World – then the presumption is that they did so. So, even if the effect of the gerrymandering is Evil racial, it will be taken to be partisan unless there is glaring evidence otherwise. Photos of black guys on the walls, or whatever.


It is difficult to get to the bottom of the layers of Alice in Wonderland lunacy in all this. The utter madness of the arguments, premised on previous utter madness, is so beyond normal human reasoning. None of them are idiots, of course. But the depths of intellectual and moral and legal corruption required for a Court to descend to such mad deliberations is unfathomable.

A while a go, I remarked in a post that I should tell the story of how my parents chose to leave America, long ago. Of course it wasn’t in protest at Supreme Court lunacy. But, at least according to family legend, a similar little instance of Americanesque lunacy played a significant role. The country is completely screwed, and I’m so grateful that my parents realised it so early in my life.

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