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ICPSR Blalock Lecture: How to Measure Legislative District Compactness If You Only Know It When You See It

July 12 @ 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm

Modern Language Building, Auditorium 3


Gary King, PhD

Weatherhead University Professor

Director, Institute for Quantitative Social Science

Harvard University

How to Measure Legislative District Compactness If You Only Know It When You See It”

Abstract: The US Supreme Court, most state constitutions, and many judicial opinions require that legislative districts be “compact.” Yet, a list of all unambiguous definitions of how this concept applies in the law is as follows: none. This leaves redistricters, litigants, and judges claiming “you know it when you see it” and academics proposing increasing numbers of precise but conflicting measures based on different dimensions of the concept. We address this problem under the hypothesis of a common understanding of compactness across people and in the law as a particular unidimensional concept. We develop a survey method designed to elicit these views, and show that it yields extremely high levels of intracoder and intercoder reliability (even when Thurstone’s venerable paired comparison approach is highly unreliable). We then develop a statistical model that predicts, with very high accuracy and solely from the geometric features of the district, compactness evaluations by judges and other public officials from many jurisdictions, as well as redistricting consultants and expert witnesses, law professors, law students, graduate students, undergraduates, ordinary citizens, and Mechanical Turk workers. We use our validated measure to calculate the compactness of 18,315 US state legislative and congressional districts, and offer these data, along with software to compute our measure for these and other districts, as a companion to this paper. We also discuss what may be the wider applicability of our general methodological approach to measuring important concepts that you only know when you see. This is collaborate work with Aaron Kaufman and Mayya Komisarchik.

Bio: Gary King is the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor at Harvard University — one of 24 with the title of University Professor, Harvard’s most distinguished faculty position. He is based in the Department of Government (in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences) and serves as Director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science. King develops and applies empirical methods in many areas of social science research, focusing on innovations that span the range from statistical theory to practical application.  For more information, see GaryKing.org.

Sponsored by the ICPSR Summer Program


Modern Language Building, Auditorium 3
812 Washington Street
Ann Arbor, MI United States
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