Tufts research lab aids states with redistricting process

Tufts Math Professor Professor Moon Duchin leads MGGG, examining the fairness of congressional maps. Courtesy Moon Duchin

As state legislatures across the country prepare to undergo the decennial process of redrawing congressional districts, the MGGG Redistricting Lab at Tufts University has become an invaluable resource for many states. 

The MGGG Redistricting Lab, which is affiliated with the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, grew out of an informal research collective called the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group. The lab is led by Moon Duchin, an associate professor in the mathematics department and director of the Science, Technology, and Society program at Tufts.

“As a lab, we have researchers, several with PhDs in different fields, like math, computer science and geography … I would say the lab is devoted to data science for civil rights,” Duchin said.

JN Matthews, a computational engineer at MGGG, explained the group’s work in an email to the Daily.

“Our group does a mixture of empirical and theoretical research in this space, public outreach, and open-source software development,” Matthews said.

The process of redistricting is generally seen as a partisan affair, but MGGG takes a non-partisan approach to the process.

“Our lab collects election and census geodata, researches redistricting and election reform, focuses on building free, open-source tools like Districtr, and building relationships with community partners,” Liz Kopecky, a program administrator at MGGG, wrote in an email to the Daily.

Kopecky added that in recent years, several states established independent commissions that accept map submissions from the public to aid their redistricting efforts.

“Wisconsin and Michigan are two states that have commissions that will be accepting public map submissions and drawing district plans for Congress and the state legislature,” Kopecky said. 

Matthews expanded on this.

“Our group is consulting for the Wisconsin People’s Maps Commission and the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to help them collect and analyze public input as well as to work with them to evaluate potential tradeoffs in mapping criteria,” Matthews said.

Duchin explained that split control states including Wisconsin, are especially keen on maintaining transparency during redistricting. Split control states are ones in which one party controls the state legislature, while another party controls the governor’s office.

“In split control states, there’s especially interest in transparency in the process, and in having outside experts help and advise,” Duchin said. 

This is not the first time MGGG has been called in to help with congressional maps. In 2018, Pennsylvania, also a split control state, sought help from MGGG, according to Duchin.

“The governor brought me in as a consultant on their lines when their congressional plan was challenged in state Supreme Court,” Duchin said. 

Kopecky mentioned that while Wisconsin and Michigan are the biggest ongoing projects, MGGG connects with people across the country. One of the ways MGGG is doing this is by holding informational sessions teaching them how to use Districtr, MGGG’s open mapping tool for creating district and community maps. 

“Throughout the Spring, our lab is running our free student-led train-the-trainers sessions to introduce community mapping in Districtr,” Kopecky said. “On Monday evenings, we introduce why Communities of Interest matter in redistricting and demonstration how you might interview someone to collect their community narrative. On Wednesday evenings, we host hands-on workshops where folks can practice mapping together.”

Another project that Duchin, along with co-author Douglas M. Spencer, worked on was a recently published paper titled “Models, Race, and the Law,” which seeks to help people understand what redistricting is and analyze how computational thinking and math can aid in creating the optimal congressional map. 

“Another major research direction for us is trying to understand the counterfactuals in redistricting — like the plans that could have been,” Duchin said.

While MGGG is more known for its work with state governments and public commissions, another focus of the lab is engaging with the public to make citizens more civically involved with their states. 

Kopecky said that in Ohio, the lab has partnered with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University to collect Community of Interest maps explaining common concerns among the state’s population. Communities of Interest are important to consider when drawing congressional maps, given that they portray common concerns for elected officials to address. 

“Prioritizing Communities of Interest is generally considered to be an essential ingredient of fair redistricting but, in practice, is difficult to implement without local knowledge,” Kopecky said.


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