Princeton University neuroscience professor Sam Wang leads the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

It’s tax time, and many New Jersey residents are now feeling the impact of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, passed last year, which limited the deductions that taxpayers can take for state and local taxes and property taxes. According to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, about 10 percent of New Jersey residents saw their tax burden actually go up, even as income taxes overall were reduced.

But if you ended up paying more, at least you can take comfort in the fact that Sheldon Adelson, the casino-owning billionaire and prominent Republican donor, personally enjoyed about $700 million in savings from the law. And Donald Trump himself reportedly saved up to $15 million thanks to the changes.

If you are not a big fan of the tax law, which overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy over everyone else, you are not alone. Polls show that Americans never viewed the bill favorably, and it has only gotten less popular over time. A recent Monmouth University poll showed just 34 percent of Americans approving, with 41 percent disapproving. Previous polls by various organizations consistently show similar negative numbers.

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act was not the only unpopular law passed by that congress. In March, 2017, lawmakers passed and President Trump signed a bill that repealed regulations that would have prevented Internet service providers from selling their customers’ browsing history without their consent. That bill was universally loathed in bipartisan fashion: polls showed three-quarters of all Republicans and Democrats alike wanted it vetoed. But in this as in many cases, public opinion didn’t seem to matter.

Federal lawmakers often vote against the wishes of their constituents. A Stigler Center study found that legislators go against the will of the voters about 35 percent of the time.

Ben Williams

A 2016 study was even more dire: a paper by Princeton professor Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University found that lawmakers frequently ignore the wishes of their constituents and instead just do whatever the wealthy and powerful want them to. Gilens found that in nearly every policy dispute where the majority of voters disagreed with wealthy elites, the elites got their way. Their conclusion was that the United States is functionally an oligarchy rather than a majoritarian democracy.

This goes against everything you learned in civics class. If lawmakers pass unpopular laws, won’t they be voted out of office?

Not necessarily. According to another Princeton professor, neuroscientist Sam Wang, a significant barrier to voters getting the politicians — and by extension the policies — they want to represent them is the fact that in most states lawmakers have the power to decide the shape of voting districts. This ability to create gerrymandered voting districts effectively allows politicians to choose their constituents rather than the other way around.

Wang explained how it works. Say you have a territory with an equal number of Democratic and Republican voters. The Democrats are mostly concentrated within a city in the middle of the district, with Republicans occupying the countryside. If Republicans were in charge of redistricting, they could create a single district that was wholly Democratic and nine other districts that had more Republicans than Democrats, turning a 50-50 split in voters into an 9-1 advantage in officeholders.

The Democrats, on the other hand, could divide the territory into pie-shaped districts, distributing the city voters in such a way that the same 50-50 vote produced an outcome favorable to their side. Gerrymandering gives politicians a firewall against public backlash, so they are free to please wealthy donors rather than voters.

This is not just a thought exercise. In some states, lawmakers have effectively gerrymandered their party into a nearly election-proof majority. For example, in 2010 Republican lawmakers in North Carolina, armed with sophisticated computer programs designed for this purpose, redistricted the state so that the Democrats in the state would be at a permanent disadvantage. It worked. In the election that year, Democratic candidates got more votes, but Republicans maintained a 9-4 advantage in House of Representatives seats. They have kept the advantage ever since.

In short, gerrymandering has allowed an unpopular minority to wield power over the desires of the majority of voters.

Will Adler

Wang is the creator and director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a nonpartisan team of experts at Princeton University whose goal is to help judges and lawmakers design fair redistricting plans for their states. The team includes Will Adler, a computational research specialist, Ben Williams, a legal analyst, and Hannah Wheelen, a data specialist, among others.

But the team isn’t just out to advise decision makers on ways to make redistricting fair: they’re also intent on listening to what the public wants. That’s why The Princeton Gerrymandering Project is going to appear at a redistricting public forum held by the League of Women Voters on Wednesday, February 20, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in Princeton University’s Maeder Hall on the corner of Prospect Avenue and Olden Street.

It is one of a series of 10 such forums being held at various locations across the state. In addition to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, the Fair Districts New Jersey Coalition and the Network for Responsible Public Policy will also attend. The event is free and open to the public.

The redistricting project is made up of an interdisciplinary team.

Wang, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton, is also founder of the Princeton Election Consortium, which analyzes polling data and maintains a blog a election.princeton.edu. Through that work he famously predicted most of the outcomes in the 2012 election — and infamously gave Hillary Clinton a near 100 percent chance of victory in 2016. (Although polling, gerrymandering, and neuroscience may not seem like related disciplines, both involve understanding large, complex data sets.) On the Gerrymandering project website, gerryamnder.princeton.edu, Wang writes that he founded the project after recognizing new, systematic distortions in representation the U.S. house of Representatives in 2012. Wang has a doctorate in neuroscience from Stanford.

Adler has a doctorate in computational neuroscience. In addition to his work with the project, he is the founder of the Scientist Action and Advocacy Network, a activist group that partners with nonprofit organizations to provide scientific assistance and promote scientific causes.

Wheelen is working to create an open source data set of voting district boundary information for the entire country. She previously worked with the Voting Rights Data Institute at the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group at Tufts/MIT. She has a bachelor’s in mathematics from U.C. Berkeley.

Williams, who has a law degree from William & Mary, provides legal analysis on court cases and redistricting bills in states across the country. Before joining the redistricting project, he worked for the National Conference of State Legislatures, where he wrote redistricting legislation for every state.

Williams says New Jersey’s districts currently have only a slight partisan tilt.

“It’s not really a problem yet,” Wheelen says. “We want to make sure something is in place so it doesn’t become a problem.”

Hannah Wheelen

With the issue of gerrymandering now in the public eye, state lawmakers are seeking to take steps to ensure that no future political party can redraw maps to suit their interests. The way the system currently works for state-level elections is that new maps are drawn every 10 years by an 11-member commission. Five members are appointed by the majority party and five by the minority, with the last being a non-partisan member appointed by the state Supreme Court if the two sides cannot reach an agreement on who the impartial 11th member should be. For federal races the membership distribution is the same, but the commission is 13 members.

The Democratic and Republican members vote in blocs, so it is effectively up to the one independent commissioner to determine which map is used. Each side lobbies the independent for a favorable map.

“New Jersey’s problem is the process,” Williams says. “They essentially try to convince the independent arbiter that their map is the better map and should be adopted. That’s not a model that any other state uses. Nobody uses this tiebreaker. It’s almost like arbitration.”

While this arbitration has produced relatively fair results so far, it gives a lot of power to one single person. “You want a system that doesn’t rely on one person to choose a winner or a loser,” he says. “We want a deliberative process.”

The danger is that one side or the other could convince the tiebreaker to adopt a gerrymandered map and cement an advantage. Williams said if this happened, it could give one side or the other as many as four additional congressional seats.

“Districting has a huge impact on the partisan makeup of delegations,” he says.

Last year a bill was introduced that would have changed the system in several important ways. It would have required that a quarter of the state’s districts be “competitive,” meaning that the composition of each one was within 5 percent of the vote for statewide and national offices. It would also require that each party get 20 “safe” districts.

The Princeton Redistricting Project came out strongly against this proposal.

Adler said there were several things wrong with the plan. Given that the Democrats got around 55 percent of the vote in recent years, a law requiring that districts stay close to the average “seems like an invitation for the Democrats to gerrymander them map.” The shoe could just as easily be placed on the other foot, however, if a future election swung in Republicans’ favor. “Either party could game the system to produce a map that favors their party,” Adler said.

The redistricting proposal proved to be unpopular and was never adopted. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project has joined a working group coordinated by Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, that seeks to ensure that the next redistricting law will be more fair. The League of Women Voters forums are part of that working group, which intends to write a report in time for the next round of redistricting, set to take place in 2021.

The project’s motto is “We bridge the gap between mathematics and the law to achieve fair representation through redistricting reform.” And mathematics is a big part of determining fair districts. Mapmaking, statistics, and the law also play a role, which is why the team is composed of experts in multiple fields.

Creating fair legislative districts, however, involves a bit of art as well as science. A good legislative map includes factors other than partisan fairness. New Jersey’s current law calls for “communities of interest” to be considered when drawing district maps. For example, a map could carve out a neighborhood that is mainly composed of a particular ethnic group. This would ensure that group would likely be represented in the legislature. However, that same district might lean heavily towards one political party, which would upset the overall balance of the map.

“There is not one perfect set of measures to consider for every state across the country,” Wheelen says. For example, Arizona created district maps based on accepted measures of partisan fairness. California, on the other hand, put redistricting in the hands of a group of nonpartisan citizens. Both states created maps that ended up being fair and competitive, Wheelen says.

New Jersey could use either approach, or a mix of the two. “One goal of these events is to try to lay that out for people and see how they feel about it … should we require some particular metric?”

So far interactions with the public have produced some feedback that the gerrymandering project wasn’t expecting.

“One thing that was surprising was how much people cared about third party-affiliated voters being a part of the process, and how many people said they would be willing to draw a map if public input was taken in the form of maps, and data was provided, and there were little map drawing groups,” Wheelen says.

Adler said the independent voters who went to the previous forums were tired of not being represented in elections. There was also the desire to reduce the role of political parties in creating the maps.

However, Adler said, the goal is not to create maps that are somehow favorable to third-party candidates. “They want to have people in the process who don’t have party affiliation,” he said, who aren’t “just playing the game to maximize partisan outcome to their party.”

Williams says the overall goal of the process is to devise a system that “doesn’t involve any side one-upping the other or beating the other at the redistricting game.” Instead, they want to create a deliberative and fair process that gets an outcome that is not just trying to crush the other party.

Across the Map

Although the League of Women Voters meeting is focused on New Jersey, the project is working on redistricting initiatives all around the country. They have provided analysis for proposed districting reforms in Utah, Colorado, Missouri, Virginia, and Michigan in addition to New Jersey.

In the case of Michigan, where a constitutional amendment passed last fall to take redistricting power away from the state legislature, Wang’s team is working with students from Princeton University to develop a set of best practices for the formation of a new redistricting commission there.

In Virginia, where most voters are concerned about who the governor is and should be, Wang is watching Republican-backed redistricting reform that is billed as non-partisan but that Wang sees as a way of entrenching the current majority party’s power.

What Is a Gerrymander?

The word “Gerrymander” is a portmanteau of the name “Gerry” and “salamander.” It dates back to 1812, when a Massachusetts state senate district was drawn to favor the slate of candidates backed by Governor Elbridge Gerry. The bizarre shape of one of the districts looked like a dragon-like monster to one cartoonist, who drew the district as a salamander. The drawing, pictured at right, was created by Elkanah Tisdale and published in the Boston Centinel in 1812.

Bizarrely shaped districts, with odd outcroppings and peninsulas to capture various groups of voters, are a hallmark of gerrymandering. However, modern gerrymandering software such as the “redmap” program used by Republicans in 2010, can create neat, compact, equally sized districts that heavily favor one party.

Redistricting Public Forum, League of Women Voters, Maeder Hall, Princeton University. Wednesday, February 20, 7 to 8:30 p.m. www.lwvprinceton.org.

Princeton Gerrymandering Project: gerrymander.princeton.edu.

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