Wielding Math to Fortify Democracy: Inside CDS’ Pioneering Seminar Series

NYU Center for Data Science
3 min readMay 6, 2024

This post is part of a series exploring CDS Seminars

When we think about defending democracy, mathematicians may not spring to mind as the most likely heroes. But in recent years, a growing movement has begun harnessing mathematical tools to protect voting rights, combat gerrymandering, and ensure fair representation. Part of this effort is CDS’ Math and Democracy Seminar, a pioneering series that showcases cutting-edge research at the intersection of mathematics and civil society.

The seminar was born in 2018, the brainchild of Ben Blum-Smith, a former Courant Institute PhD, and Soledad Villar, then a Moore Sloan Faculty Fellow at CDS (both are now at Johns Hopkins). Blum-Smith, fresh off his PhD, had been captivated by novel work at the time that leveraged Markov chains to detect extreme partisan gerrymandering. “It was like the universe opened up — people with skills in my area taking on this crucial issue in a way only we could,” he said in a recent interview. Villar, whose own research touched on redistricting, was immediately on board. “I said, ‘I think there should be a speaker series on math and democracy’,” said Blum-Smith. “[Villar] was like, ‘Let’s do it,’ and made it happen at CDS within days.”

Their first speaker, Wesley Pegden of Carnegie Mellon, had devised a key insight: a way to prove a particular map is an outlier without fully characterizing the vast space of possible districts. Pegden’s expert testimony had helped overturn Pennsylvania’s congressional map in court. “It was an exciting way to open the series,” said Blum-Smith.

From there, the seminar rapidly expanded its scope. “The series is basically about all intersections between the mathematical sciences and democratic civil society,” explained Blum-Smith. Subsequent talks have covered topics like algorithmic fairness in criminal justice, the spread of online misinformation, and alternative voting systems. NYU Professor of Politics Steven Brams, a leading figure in voting theory and fair division, has been a prominent supporter. “He’s been a real cheerleader for the seminar and an invaluable resource,” said Blum-Smith.

After operating online during the pandemic, the series is now reconvening again in person, and Blum-Smith and co-organizer Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Data Science Jon Niles-Weed are experimenting with hybrid formats to make room for an in-person event while preserving the experience of online participants.

Upcoming talks showcase the seminar’s impressive breadth. On May 6, Mason Porter of UCLA and Abigail Hickok of Columbia will present using topological data analysis of polling place access, combining state-of-the-art data science with on-the-ground civil rights concerns. The following week, on May 13, CDS Faculty Fellow Cory McCartan will discuss his work on inferring racial disparities from data that do not explicitly contain race information.

As the series builds steam, Blum-Smith sees a bright future for it. “There’s so much brilliant work happening at the junction of math and democracy, and I’m grateful to be creating a forum for it.”

By Stephen Thomas



NYU Center for Data Science

Official account of the Center for Data Science at NYU, home of the Undergraduate, Master’s, and Ph.D. programs in Data Science.