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How to solve gerrymandering with a game

Credit: Courtesy of TNS

What if one of the great political challenges of our time could be solved by playing a game?

One Ohio State professor is posing that very question.

Dustin Mixon, assistant professor in the department of mathematics, and Soledad Villar from New York University have come up with a way to solve the issue of gerrymandering with the word game “Ghost.”

Gerrymandering occurs when a political party draws the electoral map to give it an unfair advantage in elections. The issue began in 1812 when the governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry — whom the term is named after — enacted a law defining new state senatorial districts.

The issue is prominent in many states, and Ohio is no exception. For example, the 9th Congressional District is nicknamed “snake on the lake” for its peculiar shape along Lake Erie’s southern coast.

Ghost is a turn-based game where each player tries to create a word by using a letter, and whoever ends up finishing the word loses.

Villar said that her and Mixon played the game on a Go board — a 19-by-19-inch board — for several hours before coming up with a strategy to translate to the issue to gerrymandering.

It was many months later that they realized they could solve small instances of the game in closed form and did the simulations to finalize their research into a paper, which was published in December 2018.

While the work is just an experiment, Mixon said it would be successful in states with bipartisan or redistricting commissions. Twenty-one states currently have bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting commissions.

If Ghost is translated to redistricting, it will force political parties to take turns when drawing congressional districts. Politicians will no longer be incentivized to draw oddly shaped, noncompetitive districts when they know their opponent gets to draw the next one.

Mixon said he believes this will help create districts that accurately represent the population.

“There’s a tension between the geometric shapes you can get in districts versus how fair they seem to be based on the proportion of votes cast versus the seats won,” Mixon said.

Mixon’s area of expertise is geometric clustering and data sciences, but he is also interested in game theory — the study of mathematical models that predict strategic interaction between rational actors. His interest in politics is a hobby that began after hearing an NPR broadcast about gerrymandering and how the Supreme Court tries to manage with it.

“I like math, and gerrymandering feels like math, so maybe I can help out with that,” Mixon said.

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