PACE Lecture Series Part Three: Mathematics of Democracy

By: Abby Bivens

Staff Writer

@abigaillorene

While the topic of democracy is typically one that is associated with the liberal arts, Dr. Alexander Halperin contests that mathematics is a critical part of the American democratic system on Monday evening.

In the third lecture of PACE’s semester-long series, “Democracy Across the Disciplines”, Dr. Halperin brought a fresh perspective about the relevance of math in our nation’s politics.

The SU professor in the Math and Computer Science Department created a lively discussion of policy framing, polling and gerrymandering to explain his thoughts.

The lecture began with the conversation of policy framing, a technique that many public figures use to promote their agenda.

The use of mathematical language to frame policy can easily mislead citizens and Dr. Halperin encouraged the group to make sense of this language before allowing figures to sway their opinion.

Another topic was polling, a large industry in the United States and an important aspect in the political world.  There are countless political polling organizations in operation, leaving many Americans wondering how almost all of them were incorrect in predicting the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Dr. Halperin explained that through the use of the central limit theorem, a majority of political polls will produce results with a margin of error around three percent and a ninety-five percent confidence.

The central limit theorem is a statistical theory explaining that through a large sample size from a given population with a specific level of variance, the mean of that sample will be approximately equal to that of the entire population.

Even with the three percent margin of error, almost all reputable polling organizations still predicted Secretary Hillary Clinton to win both the popular vote and the electoral college.

“How could practically all of the ‘experts’ in the field be wrong?” Dr. Halperin asked.

While all of the math behind the polling may have been statistically sound, if the sample is not accurately represented, the entire poll will not be accurate.

“Autopsies” of 2016 presidential election polls suggest that the white, middle-class sector of the electorate was misrepresented and that their voter turnout was much higher than anticipated.  This led to the lack of accuracy in many of the polls along with another development that altered the race.

Dr. Halperin referenced a piece by analyst Nate Silver, “The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton the Election.”  This article, published on FiveThirtyEight, explains the last minute development that caused a major shift in Secretary Clinton’s voter base.

Dr. Halperin transitioned to his final topic of gerrymandering, a process by which boundaries of a region are manipulated for political gain.  To further explain this concept, he asked the audience to imagine that the males and females represented parties that would vote completely differently.

Dr. Halperin then distributed rolls of toilet paper and instructed the group to then divide the room into districts that would minimize the voting power of females, even though the group was composed of more women.

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The audience strategically grouped the districts using toilet paper and discussed how to lessen the effect of women’s votes.  Dr. Sarah Surak photo.

The “districts” of Fulton Hall Room 111 were inconsistent and strangely shaped.  The boundaries did not seem to make much sense, except to diminish the power of female votes.

Pulling up a congressional district map from the state of Maryland, Dr. Halperin compared it to the group activity and asked the audience for evidence of gerrymandering. Various responses included the divisions of cities and jagged, odd shapes, that are unevenly dispersed.

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A current Maryland congressional district map. Source: dailykos.com

The state of Maryland is argued as one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation.

In recent months, Maryland’s sixth congressional district was brought before the U.S. District Court for a review of its constitutionality before the 2018 election.

In a 2010-2011 redistricting process, close to 400,000 constituents were moved out of the district and replaced with a much greater population of democrats, according the Washington Post.  Through these examples, Dr. Halperin showed how Maryland uses the numbers to their advantage with strategies of gerrymandering.

In closing, Dr. Halperin reminded attendees that mathematics can be used in democracy in order to objectively state observations and concerns.  They can also be used identify problems and discover their potential solutions.

The next lecture in PACE’s “Democracy Across the Disciplines” will be an interactive discussion entitled “Democracy Every Day” on Oct. 2. 

Lectures are held Monday evenings at 7 p.m. in Fulton Hall Room 111.  All lectures in this series are open to any SU student as well as the general public.

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