Math Rules: Student Research on Partisan Gerrymandering Supports Pennsylvania Supreme Court Decision

Muhlenberg research and state court agree the congressional district map is unconstitutional and call for a redraw.

By: Paul Flanigan '18  Wednesday, February 7, 2018 00:57 PM

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The subject of the research Ben Lieberman ‘19 conducted last summer is now national news. Photos by Bill Keller.

When Ben Lieberman ‘19, a mathematics and finance major, chose to research Pennsylvania congressional gerrymandering with James Russell, assistant professor of mathematics and computer science, after the 2016 presidential election, he didn't know the issue would become headline news.

But on Jan. 22, the research became very relevant when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the state congressional map unconstitutional and ordered the state legislature to draw a new one immediately, before the May primaries.

“People know partisan gerrymandering exists but the problem is there hasn’t been a great method to measure it. It’s a much more challenging project than I thought,” Russell says. “Our timing is clearly good,” Ben adds.

To conduct their research, Ben and Russell used census data to map voters' affiliations and locations, and by randomly drawing different Congressional-district maps that fit legal standards, they determined which party would win in each district. Even after thousands of trials, their research suggested the current map is indeed too partisan.

Ben presented their work at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in San Diego on January 12, where he was awarded honorable mention, in the top 10 percent of presentations out of 400. He says, “It was incredible to see a conference packed to the brim with so many people interested in math, both faculty and students alike. I really enjoyed my experiences there, both presenting my research and attending different student and faculty sessions.” He’ll be presenting his research again in Baltimore in the winter of 2019.

“Working with Dr. Russell was an incredible experience,” says Ben. “It really was a collaboration, and I couldn’t have asked for a better research advisor, co-author, instructor and mentor.”

Ben plans to pursue his doctorate in statistics after he graduates. “This research was invaluable for my career as a mathematician, and served as a crucial milestone in my career as a student,” he says. “I learned a lot about myself, as a student and as a researcher.”

Ben and Russell are working to get their research published and hope to make an impact as Pennsylvania prepares a new district map. "Our algorithm can serve as a tool for lawmakers, courts and politicians to design a proposed districting plan and to evaluate the appropriateness of any such plan,” says Russell. “Gerrymandering is a very hot topic, and it shows that there is a real need for our research, both mathematically and socially."

Last summer, more than 60 students participated in undergraduate research with faculty mentors at Muhlenberg, and, like Ben, they received a stipend, campus housing and college credit. Learn more about Ben’s research (Does a Congressional Map Unfairly Favor One Political Party? There’s Math for That) and about Student Research and Scholarship at the College.