24 September 2007

redistricting redux

At Statistical Modeling, etc. I learned about Roland Fryer and Richard Holden's Measuring the Compactness of Political Districting Plans, which is a nice mixture of political science and mathematics. (I've talked about redistricting before, here and here.) A nice thing about this paper is that they show their results in an arbitrary metric space -- working in Euclidean space seems kind of limiting because distances in "real life" aren't Euclidean. Sometimes you can't get there from here. Or sometimes you can but no one ever does.

The authors define a "relative proximity index" for a districting plan of a state. First they define an absolute proximity index (they don't use this name, as far as I can see) as the square of the distances between voters, summed over all pairs of voters who are in the same district. Then the relative proximity index is this index measured on a scale where its minimum over all possible districtings of a state is 1. (A districting is a partition of the people in a state into n sets which differ in size by at most 1.)

The main result is that the RPI is an example of a "compactness index", which should satisfy three axioms: anonymity (if you interchange people, the index doesn't change), something called "clustering", and "independence" (which means that a compactness index doesn't vary if the size, population density, or number of districts in a state changes, holding all else constant). It turns out that if one districting plan is better than another under RPI, that relation will also hold under any other compactness index.

This paper also wins the prize for "biggest number I've seen that actually means something". The number of ways to partition the 6,800 census tracts of California into 53 districts is 78.4 × 1059,351. (I was about to write "about 1060,000", despite the fact that these numbers differ by a factor of more than 10647... the fact that I'm willing to throw out such a large factor tells you just how large a number this is!) This is the size of the search spaces they have to consider.

(I don't pretend to understand the details... I've only skimmed the paper.)


Michael Cassidy said...

To post something I'm sure you know, redistricting has nothing to do with fairness.

It is about politics or one political party screwing the other political party.

Mohan K.V said...

That was a really nice post, thanks :)!

Regarding very, _very_ large numbers that actually turn up in real places, you definitely should have a look at Graham's number, if you haven't seen it before: