Spring 2023 Colloquium - Alma Steingart
Department of History, Columbia University
Title: On Mathematical Measurement and Representative Politics: Rethinking the 1960s Apportionment Revolution
Abstract: The Supreme Court’s 1962 decision in Baker v. Carr sparked renewed interest in the mathematics of electoral politics in the United States. In the three months following the Court’s ruling that malapportionment cases were justiciable, challenges to the existing apportionment plan were brought up in 22 states. Initially, however, there was no clearly articulated standard by which malapportionment should be measured. As then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller retorted when pressed on why New York has not revised its apportionment plan, “But what would be your basis for apportionment? Have you got a formula?” In search of a solution, political scientists, mathematicians, and early computer enthusiasts began asking whether mathematical analysis could be used to achieve fair representation. In this talk, I survey some of the early 1960s attempts to bring mathematical and computational techniques to the study of political representation. I demonstrate how conflicting ideas about how to measure fairness came to influence electoral politics in the Unites States and how claims to mathematical exactitude served to further obscure political questions.