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  • Andy Avila, George Mason University

Using Open Data to Study Voting Efficiency

During GIS Week 2017, I proudly presented my group’s poster focused on gerrymandering for an applied GIS course. Gerrymandering is when one political party redraws voting districts in a way that favors them over their opponents. It’s unconstitutional, but difficult to prove in court. Rather than studying which political party was gerrymandering, we wanted to see if the voting being conducted in congressional districts did indeed have parity.

In order to do so, we discovered a mathematical formula known as the Efficiency Gap. What this formula does is calculate the amount of ‘wasted’ votes in any given election. For example, party A has 100 votes and party B has 50. However, for A to to win a district they only need 51 votes, therefore, 49 votes are wasted. If then, Party B lost the district, they wasted all 50. Once the wasted votes have been calculated, the Efficiency Gap comes into play:

So, you take the higher wasted vote value, subtract it by the lower value and divide by the total amount of votes in that district or whichever scale is being calculated. In an ideal election, both parties will be wasting an equal amount of votes (as in the example above). However, Nicholas Stephanopoulos and Eric McGhee [1], the creators of this formula, have documented many cases in which either party is wasting far more votes than the other.

Our objective was not to single out any particular party but rather to try and discover what sort of variables led to a congressional district wasting more votes than the other.

The Office of the Clerk has wonderful, in-depth data regarding elections in the House of Representatives. We used this data in addition to open data available from the US Census Bureau to populate our four themes based on housing, household composition, disability, and socioeconomic status. Figuring out the factors that lead to wasted votes would make it much easier to prevent such a phenomenon in the future.

What we wish is to see a fair election because this would empower American voters and gain their trust in the election system here. A newfound trust would excite people and more than likely lead to much higher turnouts during elections. The right to vote is a beautiful thing and it is unfortunate that US citizens’ perspective of democracy has been marred by feelings of futility. Hopefully, with further research and active involvement from policymakers, legislation will be placed that allow for a fairer voting platform in which all will be eager to exercise their right.

Andy Avila is a senior, Geography major and Computational and Data Science minor studying at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He enrolled into George Mason not having declared a major until his sophomore year. Geography sort of fell on his lap when he took University 220, a class designed to help students decide and confirm a potential major. Fortunately, he has found a real passion for the subject and relishes in opportunities to continue his exploration into the field. He joined Mason Mappers, a YouthMappers affiliated chapter at George Mason, and jumped at the opportunity to intern for USAID Geocenter. He hopes to continue expanding and building upon his spatially-based skill sets in order to earn a position in the Humanitarian arena of Geography.

[1] Stephanopoulos, N. O., & McGhee, E. M. (2015). Partisan gerrymandering and the efficiency gap. The University of Chicago Law Review, 831-900.

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