In this episode, teacher Mele Sato explains how she got students excited about congressional redistricting by literally starting from where they lived – studying maps to see how their communities were divided by district lines, and what that meant for how they were represented.
You can learn more about the Electioneering Project here.
[MUSIC PLAYING] From High Tech High and the California Department of Education, this is the Project Essentials podcast. I’m your host Alec Patton. Mele Sato’s electioneering project is a 12th grade math project, and like the name implies, it’s about politics. But it’s not a politics project like any others I’ve ever seen. Nobody talks about political parties, or policies, or even political candidates.
Instead, they zoom in on the most important part of any election. Voting. And that means three things. How do you cast your vote? How are votes tallied? And what are the boundaries of the district you vote in? As a result, Mele explained to me, the project is grounded in a very simple essential question.
The electioneering project I titled, Does My Vote Matter? And it evolved into, how does my vote matter? Which really was about how can one individual’s vote have an impact on the congressional district in which that person resides. And so, what we did was look at our current voting systems figuring out which ones were fair which ones weren’t fair.
And so then that took us to how districts are drawn, the geometry of gerrymandering. Who decides where the districts are drawn? Who decides what voting systems are used in which elections? And then how does an individual vote? And how does an individual become informed?
A project that rests on the twin pedestals of congressional district and alternative voting systems might sound unbelievably boring to you, but the electioneering project is full of shocking revelations, passionate debates, and best of all, students trying really, really hard to solve complicated intractable real world problems using math.
Mele’s secret is that she starts from two things that every human being finds compelling. First, their own lives, and second, unfairness. This episode is all about how Mele turns congressional redistricting into an opportunity for students to examine their own lives. Episode two in the series is about how Mele appeals to teenager’s concern, some might say obsession, with fairness to engage them in studying alternative ways of casting and tallying votes.
That’s not fair, like I heard that over and over again with the kids.
You’ll hear more about that in the next episode. Right now, let’s get into congressional redistricting. It starts with a concept called compactness.
We started learning about measures of compactness, and so that’s how they determine whether congressional districts have been gerrymandered, or tampered with, or drawn to give preference to a political party, or not. And all of a sudden, when we were measuring compactness of different congressional districts in San Diego County, they had some sense of, OK, why am I, who live in Barrio Logan, grouped in the same district as somebody who lives in Campo? That makes no sense to me. We have very different concerns, and issues, and values. How are we all in the same congressional district together?
So a little bit of local San Diego context. Barrio Logan consists of 1 and 1/2 square miles in downtown San Diego. Its population is 27,000. Campo, on the other hand, is a small town in East San Diego County. It covers 23 and 1/2 square miles with a population of 3,000. To break that down, Barrio Logan contains about 15,000 people per square mile. Campo contains 130 people per square mile. They are also 50 miles apart. So Mele’s students are right. They’re pretty different from each other.
We looked at maps of where congressional districts were drawn, and they saw their neighborhood. And they had to answer the question, who’s my representative? I didn’t know that they represent me in Congress, over there in Washington DC, and I don’t know who they are. Wait, but you live like two minutes away from me. How come you have a different person that represents you? We would have gone to the same school, but we have different representatives in the House? How does that make sense?
So listening to them discuss that sort of purpose– it really brought some context to them. And zooming in to, zooming in on the congressional districts. You could see the exact roads that they turn on. They’re like, wait, what, how, who made that decision? Who made that decision to turn here instead of just go straight?
So who did make that decision? It turns out that in California, at least, the answer is actually less sinister than you might expect.
California’s really interesting. We’re one of a few states that has an independent commission of citizens that redistrict. So it is not the legislature that redistricts. So I think that the students here found that really interesting and powerful. That oh, we have a different system set up. It isn’t politicians that are doing this.
So that when we started to calculate compactness of our current congressional districts in San Diego County, recognizing that some of them didn’t score as highly on compactness than some of them, the students were bought into redrawing them, so that they became more compact.
So one of the products that the students got to choose was redistricting California’s congressional districts 49 through 53. I focused just on those because they’re within San Diego County, so obviously, bringing that relevancy still to the students. When they’re drawing those lines they’re actually thinking about, am I cutting up a neighborhood? Am I cutting up my neighborhood?
What’s really cool is that when students redistrict their neighborhoods to make them more compact, it doesn’t need to just be a theoretical exercise. Remember that independent commission Mele mentioned earlier that determines congressional districts? They take submissions.
It’s called the California Citizens Redistricting Commission and they actually take submissions for planning. They take submissions for public mapping, and they take submissions for redistricting. So in the 2020 census, one of the huge conversations is about apportionment, and how those seats in the House are going to be divvied up based on the populations of each state.
Every 10 years is when the commission redistricts. So by taking public submissions, our students in 2021, following the 2020 census getting that data back, could potentially redistrict all of California, and submit it as a potential plan, as an independent party or independent group of people. I think that’s super powerful, and really cool, and definitely would up their game in terms of how detailed are they getting. Where are they drawing that line? It’s less about just following the highways and the rivers, but really thinking about, in their neighborhood who are they splitting up?
So just to break this down. Mele’s students looked at how their own neighborhoods were split into congressional districts. Discovering that, while they might not share a member of Congress with each other, some of them shared a member of Congress with a small town 50 miles away.
Then they set out to make those districts more fair and representative, using mathematical measures of compactness to do it. And in 2021, students can submit their redistricting plans to the state of California, and they could end up redistricting the entire state. So that’s redistricting.
But what about what we actually do when we show up at a polling place and cast our ballots? What about how those votes are counted? Are we voting the right way? Could we be doing it better? Mele and her students decided to find out by holding an election and running the results through a few different voting systems.
Taking the results of an election, applying different voting systems to it, and seeing that a different person would win in every voting system. They were like what? What?
We’ll get into all that next episode. For now, thanks so much for listening to the Project Essentials podcast. Project Essentials is a production of High Tech High and the California Department of Education. I’m your host Alec Patton. And our theme music is by brother Hershel. And brother Hershel has an EP out. So check them out on SoundCloud, Bandcamp or wherever you get your digital music. So long.