WASHINGTON, D.C.—Two Duke students got to see their research take center stage in the United States Supreme Court Tuesday. 

Seniors Luke Farrell and Jake Shulman traveled to the nation's capital to attend the oral arguments in the case Rucho v. Common Cause, a case on North Carolina partisan gerrymandering. The two seniors were part of a Bass Connections team whose research on the mathematics behind drawing districts was cited in the case's oral arguments and documents.

“I think this was one of the single most important educational experiences I’ve ever had,” Farrell said. “It’s been really rewarding and really hard math research and to see Justice [Elena] Kagan talking about that research directly—even though we played a very small part in all of that—it still was super exciting to see that small part make a big difference in the long run.”

The case focuses on North Carolina’s congressional districts, which the plaintiffs alleged have been gerrymandered to produce districts favorable to Republicans. A district court ruled in January 2018 that the maps were unconstitutional by violating non-Republican voters' rights of the First Amendment, Equal Protection Clause and Elections Clause. The verdict was subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court.

Jonathan Mattingly, chair of the Duke department of mathematics, and his Bass Connections team played a key role in decoding the mathematics behind gerrymandering.

Farrell explained that team’s goal was to create a variety of maps, determine the political leaning of a state and ultimately establish whether the drawn map is likely partisan. According to Farrell, their work is a “nitty-gritty” process of creating sample district maps that account for population, Voting Rights Act provisions and other factors.

Shulman added that the idea was to examine what the slate of potential maps would look like if partisan data were not considered when drawing district lines.

For instance, Republicans in North Carolina picked up 53 percent of the vote in 2016 but won 10 out of 13 districts. The data collected by Farrell and Shulman suggested that this lopsided outcome is “a giant outlier,” Shulman explained.

Although the two were only able to watch the arguments for five minutes due to limited seating, seeing their research discussed in court was a culminating moment for Farrell and Shulman.

“We went inside for around five minutes, and we got to hear a good portion of what they were talking about,” Shulman said. “They actually ended up talking about the part that we’re working on with Duke research, where they talked about the ensemble of maps—the 25,000 maps that we created—and showed that [around] 24,990 are more fair and reasonable than the map that was actually enacted.”

Shulman explained that trip to D.C. had been in the works since the court docket came out last semester, and Farrell said he’d blocked off the whole week on his calendar in preparation for the announcement of the hearing date.

They drove up Monday, stayed at an Airbnb and woke up early in the morning to stand in line for a few hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Supreme Court Justices and attorneys in the case. The seniors even missed their Bass Connections gerrymandering class. Farrell said they had a “reasonable pass” for that one.

Despite the cold, he added that the atmosphere in the line was exciting as people waited for the chance to be admitted to the courtroom.

“A lot of people were really energized in the line,” Farrell said. “Everyone was really excited and here for the case, which I think was really cool.”

Farrell said that his ideal, yet unlikely, ruling would be the court broadly ruling that North Carolina’s maps and partisan gerrymandering are unconstitutional. A more feasible outcome would be a 5-4 decision either way, the senior said.

Farrell added that the team struggled with making the complex mathematics behind their gerrymandering research accessible and useful evidence in the court case. But when the research came up during the argument, Farrell knew that their effort had been worth it.

“We saw that all that hard work paid off,” he said.

Bre Bradham and Jake Satisky contributed reporting