Saturday, September 15, 2007

The hardness of fair redistricting

Through a series of pointers, I ended up at Brian Olson's page on redistricting, where he proposes an algorithm to do "fair redistricting" of districts so as to avoid problems with gerrymandering. The measure proposed appears to be a discrete k-median variant: namely, cluster "blocks" into k districts such that the average distance to the center of the district (defined as the centroid of the collection of blocks) is minimized. His code is online, and appears to use a GA-type heuristic. This is essentially a planar k-median problem, and is solvable approximately by a variety of methods.

In reading some of the (critical) comments on some of the original posts, (most of the form (a) this has been proposed ever since the early 60s (b) automation is not the hardest problem in redistricting), I was led to an award-winning political science dissertation by Micah Altman, in which (among other things) he shows that most of the reasonable redistricting formulations (although not the one above) are NP-hard (they tend to be variants of set packing). It was interesting to read a lengthy discourse on computational complexity and NP-hardness in the middle of such a dissertation.
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