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Liz Hartung

Dr. Elizabeth Hartung at a “Geometry of Redistricting” workshop, held at Tufts University.

Math Expert Connects Statistics with Politics

08/23/17

Last summer, Dr. Elizabeth Hartung, MCLA assistant professor of mathematics, presented her research in China. This summer, she traveled to Canada and across the Commonwealth to attend conferences not only as a researcher and educator, but also as a student as she attended the five-day summer program, the “Geometry of Redistricting” workshop, held at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

At the interdisciplinary conference, she joined mathematicians from all discipline areas, as well as computer scientists, civil scholars, lawyers, sociologists, civil rights activists, and those who draw redistricting maps. Together, they focused on the mathematics of redistricting and voting rights. The topic directly ties into her specialty – graph theory – which was one of the ways that mathematicians at the conference looked at voting districts.

“There’s a lot of math that goes into making voting districts and assessing them to determine whether or not they are drawn fairly, and in a manner that allows people to have an equal voice,” Hartung said. “After the last election, and others, I was definitely very interested in what was going on. We’ve had more than one election where the presidential candidate with the majority vote was not the person who was elected.”

She continued, “The workshop topics included history, civil rights, and different applications of math and computing. For example, statistics is used to estimate what proportion of people vote a particular way across different districts, according to certain demographics and the proportion of those that vote for different candidates. We can run different models to find correlations between people of different ethnicities or educational backgrounds, and candidates they are choosing.”

“How do you measure a fair district, or how do you draw a district that’s fair? That’s one issue. Another is keeping communities of interest together,” she added.

According to Hartung, the workshop was spurred in part by the results of last year’s presidential election. Statistics and math, she explained, are needed to help interpret situations to a general audience, such as in cases where voter suppression may be taking place.

Through an application process, Hartung was selected to attend an exclusive special educator track held during the final two days of the workshop. From this experience, she expects to implement some new ideas into her courses, such as those in “Intro to Statistics” and “Graphs Theory.”

“There are a lot of issues to talk about, both with redistricting and suppression of voting access. When I heard about this workshop, and how it could be approached from a mathematical perspective, I was super interested to learn what people were doing, and to see if I could contribute mathematically or teach mathematical methods or historical topics to a wider audience,” she said.

In June, Hartung was an invited speaker at the “Ontario Combinatorics Workshop,” held at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Just a few days later, she spoke at the “Canadian Discrete and Algorithmic Mathematics Conference,” held at Ryerson University in Toronto.