The election outcome and what it means for mathematicians


This post contains three parts:

  • a long section on the newly elected members of Congress and the potential committee shake-ups that will affect the NSF and other science agencies;
  • a shorter section on redistricting legislation that passed on November 6; and
  • An even shorter section on the number of women coming to Congress in 2019.

Election day winners and losers and what it mean for committees with jurisdiction over the NSF

In the November 6 election, seven newcomers with a graduate degree in a STEM field, or a medical degree, were successful in their bids for seats in the House and will join the 116th Congress in Washington, D.C. on January 6.

The seven are Sean Casten (D-IL), Joe Cunningham (D-SC), Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) and Elaine Luria (D-VA), who are all engineers; pediatrician Kim Schrier (D-WA); Lauren Underwood (D-IL), a registered nurse; and dentist Jeff van Drew (D-NJ).

Elaine Luria has a BS in physics and a Master of Engineering Management (MEM). As an engineer, she operating nuclear reactors in the Navy.

Chrissy Houlahan has an undergraduate engineering degree from Stanford and an MS in Technology and Policy from MIT. She has taught high school science and most recently worked for a non-profit focusing on early childhood literacy in underserved populations.

Joe Cunningham has a bachelor’s degree in ocean engineering. He worked in this field, in industry, until the 2008 recession when he returned to law school.

Sean Casten a BA in molecular biology and biochemistry, a MEM and an MS in biochemical engineering. His career has been in the private sector and focused on clean energy technologies.

Re-elected to Congress are PhD mathematician Jerry McNerney (D-CA) and PhD physicist Bill Foster (D-IL).

There are four committees with power over the NSF; these are the “appropriating” and “authorizing” committees for each of the House and Senate. These committees also appropriate funds for and regulate and write policies governing NASA, NIST and other science programs.

The Appropriations Committees decide how much money the NSF receives each year, money that is then awarded to scientists to support their research. Senate-side, not much will change: we expect Richard Shelby to remain as chair, and Jerry Moran to remain as chair of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee (this subcommittee has NSF in its portfolio). In the House, the flip to Democrat control means that there will be more musical chairs. While not yet certain, it is expected that Nita Lowey will chair of the Appropriations Committee and José Serrano will chair of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee.

In appropriations, committee structure is neat in that it is identical in both chambers. Not so with other committees. In each chamber there is a committee with oversight of the NSF (non-funding policies). These are the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Eddie Bernice Johnson has submitted her bid to chair the House committee and we expect that will come to pass. Jeff Mervis of Science magazine interviewed her and they spoke about her thoughts on the work of the committee, including oversight of the NSF, academic espionage, STEM education, and sexism in science. In the Senate, John Thune will probably not continue as chair of the Senate committee because he is expected to be named the majority whip; in this case Roger Wicker will probably take over as chair of this committee.

While bringing new science proponents to Congress is great news, we also lost some allies. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), John Culberson (R-TX), Randy Hultgren (R-IL), and Kevin Yoder (R-KS) all lost their re-election bids. Comstock has been a leader advancing women in STEM fields and combating sexual harassment in science. Culberson is a proponent of planetary science and space exploration, and his efforts have led to years of increased funding for NASA. Hultgren’s district includes Fermilab and he has been an effective supporter of the Department of Energy’s national laboratory system. Yoder has been a strong voice for basic science research and for medical research in particular and his efforts have resulted in higher funding for the National Institutes of Health. Comstock and Hultgren are current members of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Culberson and Yoder both serve on the Appropriations Committee, with Culberson chairing the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee.

The House also lost Jacky Rosen (D-NV)–a computer programmer, software developer, and proponent of programs to support women and girls in science–but she won her bid for the Senate seat so will remain in Congress. It is not clear whether or not Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) will remain, as his election has gone to a recount. Nelson is an astronaut and major ally of the STEM community.

Redistricting reform in the states

The mathematical and statistical sciences have always played a fundamental role in drawing voting district plans, and with modern predictive techniques and computing power, can play an increasingly powerful role in this process. The AMS does not endorse any one approach or metric for measuring fairness of voting district plans. We do urge, however, that mathematics and statistical science be employed to evaluate the fairness of district plans and have put out a policy statement to this effect.

Congressional redistricting is done by the states and there is a wide variety of complicated and ever-changing laws guiding the decennial process.

Colorado, Michigan and Missouri all passed measures amending their state constitutions to create independent redistricting commissions. This brings the total number of states to nine that will use independent commissions to draw state legislative districts and eight that will use these commissions for state and federal districts following the 2020 census.

Colorado voters considered two ballot measures to amend the state constitution; each passed with over 70% of the vote. Under the two amendments (Y is for congressional lines, Z for state legislative ones) a twelve-person commission comprising four Republicans, four Democrats and four unaffiliated members will be tasked with coming up with the new maps. Districts will need to be competitive. Competitive is defined in Colorado as having a reasonable potential to change parties at least once every ten years, and measuring competitiveness entails evidenced-based analyses, voter registration data, and past election results.

In Michigan, Proposal 2 passed and transferred the power to draw the state’s congressional and legislative districts from the state legislature to a 13-member independent redistricting commission. Proposal 2 requires commissioners to prioritize specific criteria, including compliance with federal laws; equal population sizes; geographic contiguity; demographics and communities of similar historical, cultural, or economic interests; no advantages to political parties; no advantages to incumbents; municipal boundaries; and compactness.

The Missouri measure is arguably the most interesting to the mathematical and statistical sciences community. Missouri currently has two legislative redistricting commissions that draw maps for the state house and senate respectively. Voters in Missouri approved Proposition 1, which created a position called the “non-partisan state demographer.” There will be no change to the composition of the commissions. Amendment 1 requires the state demographer and commissions to consider specific criteria, including what the initiative calls partisan fairness and competitiveness, contiguity, compactness, and existing boundaries of political subdivisions. Partisan fairness means that parties shall be able to translate their popular support into legislative representation with approximately equal efficiency. Competitiveness means that parties’ legislative representation shall be substantially and similarly responsive to shifts in the electorate’s preferences. Wasted votes (as in the efficiency gap) are to be counted in measuring fairness. Missouri voters supported this constitutional amendment which also makes changes to the state’s lobbying laws, and sets campaign finance limits for state legislative candidates.

Utah had a similar measure on the ballot to set up an independent commission and set criteria for the line-drawers. As of now, Proposition 4 has the majority of the votes, but it is a very slim majority and the result has not been finalized.

In addition, several states passed ballot measures having to do with voting rights, including on automatic voter registration (NV, MI, MD), requiring photo-IDs (AR and NC), and restoring voting rights for felons (FL).

Number of women in Congress

Ok, I cannot end without telling you this piece of news. This election sends over 100 women to the House of Representatives. This shatters the old record of 84 of the 435. The number of female Senators will remain 23.

About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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