Imagine a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court interrupting an attorney’s argument by saying, “sorry counselor, but I only read at a third grade level, so your brief is just gobbledygook to me.” It’d probably raise a question or two about that jurist’s ability competently adjudicate thorny legal issues, wouldn’t it? If the remark received an enthusiastic “me too” from a colleague peering mystified at an upside down copy of the Constitution, we’d probably worry about the capability of the court as a whole to decide critical matters of jurisprudence, not just an individual justice.
There’s no doubt that illiteracy in a Supreme Court justice would be greeted with open-mouthed astonishment. How could an individual bereft of an intellectual skill so basic and necessary to the job get elevated to such a high and influential office? On the other hand, if a justice cheerfully admits they are innumerate and will have to take off their shoes and socks if required to count past ten, no problem. An inability to read would clearly cause any jurist mortification and embarrassment. Being ignorant of basic mathematical principles, well, that just makes you as dumb as the next guy. To the mystification and mortification of us educators, there’s no shame in that.
Believe it or not, Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts recently more or less made exactly this sort of confession in open court. The me-no-likee-math moment came during oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a case that’s a big hairy deal likely to have far reaching effects on partisan control of state and federal governments for decades. Roberts’ chipper acknowledgement that he can’t deal with numbers is enough to set middle school math teachers on vibrate all by itself. But it’s bigger than that. What we have here is essentially an admission by the chief justice that he’s incapable of understanding the crucial argument at the heart of a potentially landmark case.
The issue here is partisan gerrymandering, a time-honored tradition practiced widely by both parties. Every ten years, after the decennial census, states are required to literally redraw the political map, adjusting the topology of congressional and state legislative districts to fit population shifts. As a general rule, whichever party controls the state legislature enthusiastically seizes this cartographical responsibility to maximize partisan advantage. In other words, they do their best to shuffle voters into a set of districts–a dab of Dems here, a skosh of Republicans there–to maximize the probabilities their party will win legislative seats.
While this sort of thing has always gone on, after the GOP’s “red tide” 2010 election, Republican majorities in many states took it to new extremes. This is what Gill v. Whitford is all about. In 2008’s Wisconsin State Assembly elections, Republicans got 44 percent of the votes statewide and 46 percent of the seats (46 of 99 seats). So, overall, there was a more or less a translation of the statewide popular vote into representation in the people’s house. In 2010, the GOP took control of state government in Wisconsin and enthusiastically began, literally, to change the political geography of the state. In the 2012 assembly elections Republicans got 47 percent of the vote and 60 percent of the seats. In 2016 they received 53 percent of the votes and 64 percent of the seats. So, if we look statewide, Democrats have received more than half (2012) or nearly half (2016) of the votes cast, and ended up with a small minority — less than 40 percent — in the legislature.
And that’s the basic question the Supreme Court is grappling with in Gill: If district maps are jiggered to a fare thee well so that a party supported by a minority of voters ends up with a dominant legislative majority, is everything still constitutionally kosher in equality town? Clearly Republican votes are worth way more in Wisconsin than Democratic votes. That’s not the issue. The real issue is how big does that inequality have to be to justify calling naughty-naughty on the legislature and forcing a districting do-over to more faithfully translate popular votes proportionally into legislative seats?
Well, there’s the rub. You need a dash of math to come up with an answer. Is it even possible to measure the degree of partisan voting inequity? Sure. Social scientists do this sort of thing for a living. The best measure available is what’s known as voting efficiency and it’s not a tough concept. Calculating it requires nothing more than voting totals, the ability to add, subtract and divide, and a cheap calculator. What you end up with is a ratio that tells you how well a party converts votes in legislative seats. So, for example, a voting efficiency gap of .20 means the majority party got 20 percent more legislative seats more than they would have if there was no hanky-panky by the district draw-ers. Undergrads can pick up the logic and the math in about 10 minutes, and I’m betting you can too. You can read a quick introduction here , and reading just the first two pages should make the concept clear.
Apparently, that’s more than Chief Justice Roberts can handle. He called the whole argument “sociological gobbledygook”, and several of his colleagues poo-pooed the idea, smirking that if the court bought into all this quantitative hocus-pocus (i.e. addition, subtraction and division), why, we’d end up with pointy headed political scientists drawing the lines for political districts. Um, well, here’s a newsflash bench-boy: We already do. Republicans and Democrats routinely pay people with our exact qualifications and skill sets seriously big bucks to draw those maps to maximize their electoral fortunes (what can I say, we need the dough). And if the Supreme Court can’t grasp the basic math used in these exercises–again, not that hard–they really have no freakin’ clue what they are dealing with.
This doesn’t seem to bother Roberts. He cheerfully said his lack of understanding, “may simply be my educational background.” That’s a gobsmacking statement. Roberts got his undergrad and law degrees at Harvard (his JD was magna cum laude). I had no clue that after spending a third world country’s GDP on an Ivy League education you could still be left incapable of grasping a basic numerical exercise, something I can get a farmer’s kid from western Nebraska to master inside a quarter hour.*
So, while the Supreme Court’s shameless flaunting of its mathematical illiteracy reflects poorly on the quality of the court’s jurisprudence, it might be good for us teaching at public universities. Roughly a third of political science majors at my institution are pre-law majors–my discipline produces a lot of lawyers (for which I’d like to formally apologize). And while we can’t give our grads the snoot value of a Hah-vahd credential, we sure as shootin’ can (and do) make sure they have a basic understanding of numbers before we release them into the wild.
We do so for a very good reason.These days, a basic quantitative skill set is a basic, and absolutely critical, tool for anyone seeking to make systematic sense out of even the most elementary disagreements about our social, political and economic worlds. It’s apparently also a skill set that the Supreme Court loudly and proudly lacks.
*This may be an unfair comparison. Unlike Harvard trained lawyers, corn farmers have to be good with numbers if they want to make a living.