Durham County

How a Duke professor helped bring down NC’s controversial Congressional map

State House Speaker Tim Moore, center, looks over a proposed Congressional redistricting map during a February 2016 committee meeting. A court, leaning among other things on a Duke professor’s analysis, declared the map unconstitutional this week.
State House Speaker Tim Moore, center, looks over a proposed Congressional redistricting map during a February 2016 committee meeting. A court, leaning among other things on a Duke professor’s analysis, declared the map unconstitutional this week. tlong@newsobserver.com

Validation sometimes arrives quietly. Other times, it makes a splash, and for the chairman of Duke University’s math department, Tuesday’s validation was the splashy kind.

Duke professor Jonathan Mattingly saw his critical analysis of the state’s 13 Congressional districts become one of the focal points of a 205-page court ruling that declared them an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

The author of the lead opinion, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Wynn, said Mattingly’s work had gone a long way toward showing the N.C. General Assembly “intended to subordinate the interests of non-Republican voters and entrench the Republican Party in power” when it drew the current district lines in 2016.

Wynn coupled that finding to a defense of Mattingly and other professors involved in the case against Republican claims they’d served up a “smorgasbord of alleged ‘social science’ theories” to undermine the existing districts.

As a counter, that was little more than a “cynical objection” to the idea of using evidence that “has its genesis in academic research and is the product of an effort by scholars to apply novel, and sometimes complex” methods to “a previously intractable problem,’” Wynn said for himself and two other judges.

He added that the U.S. Constitution “does not require the federal courts to act like Galileo’s Inquisition” and close their eyes to knowledge merely because it offers “a new understanding of how to give effect to our long-established governing principles.”

For Mattingly, Tuesday’s ruling was “an important step in the conversation” about the use of mathematics to illuminate such problems.

“I definitely got the feeling that they found the ideas credible,” Mattingly said, recalling how Wynn and U.S. District Court Judges Earl Britt and William Osteen reacted when he testified about his work in open court in October.

Mattingly, an expert on mathematical modeling, has been studying the redistricting issue since 2014, when he and then-Duke senior Christy Vaughn published a research paper that concluded the pro-Republican skew of the 2011 version of the Congressional district boundaries was a huge statistical outlier.

The methods they used then for what started as Vaughn’s undergraduate project are roughly the same ones that Mattingly applied to the 2016 districts the panel of judges now wants replaced.

This time around, he asked a computer to draw a random sample of 150,000 potential district maps, and then narrowed that to 24,518 maps by throwing out the choices with districts that didn’t closely match each other in population or geography.

He then ran precinct-level vote totals from North Carolina’s 2012 and 2016 Congressional elections through the remaining maps, and looked to see which party would have prevailed.

With most of the maps, it being a Republican year, the 2016 precinct totals should have translated into a Congressional delegation split 8-5 in favor of the GOP.

The actual result of the General Assembly-written district map was a 10-3 split in favor of Republicans – an outcome Mattingly found would’ve resulted by chance less than 1 percent of the time.

Of course, the outcome wasn’t chance, as Republican legislators explicitly drew the 2016 maps to yield a 10-3 lineup. The plan’s lead sponsor, state Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, told colleagues it came out that way only because he didn’t think it possible to secure an 11-2 result for the GOP.

Lewis saw nothing wrong or illegal about that because he thinks a lopsided Republican majority “is better for the country,” Wynn wrote, quoting the Harnett legislator.

“In this case, we don’t have to wonder” about legislators’ motives because they were “very clear” both about them and their opinion of the move’s legality, Mattingly said.

But Wynn, Britt and Osteen agreed the 2016 boundaries violate both the constitution’s equal-protection guarantee and the founders’ insistence that the people elect members of the U.S. House.

Osteen – who received his appointment to the bench from former President George W. Bush – disagreed with the others about whether the lines also violate the constitution’s free-speech guarantees. But he said there was plenty of evidence to show that legislators set about “entrenching Republican candidates in power by dictating the outcome of” the election.

Wynn was appointed by former President Barack Obama and Britt by former President Jimmy Carter.

Wynn said it’s far from uncommon, historically, for courts to lean on scientific analysis as evidence of constitutional violations.

He also hinted that the legislators’ lawyers hadn’t helped their cause by labeling as “social science” the use of a mathematical technique invented by some of the hardest of hard scientists – the men who designed the first nuclear weapons for the U.S. in the 1940s and early 1950s.

A team that included physicist Edward Teller – popularly known as the father of the hydrogen bomb – was the first to write about the algorithm Mattingly used. And even that team was building on prior work by such math and physics luminaries as Enrico Fermi, John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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