Alma Steingart, an assistant professor in the Department of History at Columbia University, researches the interplay between American politics and mathematical rationalities. Professor Steingart’s current project, Accountable Democracy, examines how mathematical thought and computing technologies have impacted electoral politics in the United States in the twentieth century. It follows on her first book, Axiomatics: Mathematical Thought and High Modernism (2023). Steingart’s work has appeared in Social Studies of Science, Grey Room, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her work is supported by a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.

Talk: Between Equity and Equality: Mathematical Measures of Fairness in Political Representation

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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 twenty-two 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, she will survey some of the early 1960s attempts to apply mathematical and computational techniques to the problem of political representation, 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.