When President Obama leaves office on January 20 he already has one task on his to-do list: Work with the newly created National Democratic Redistricting Committee to bring legislative districts back to the point where they can be called representative of the population at large, rather than gerrymandered to be overloaded with voters from one party or another.
Obama will be lending his hand to an effort that has already attracted the attention of Sam Wang, Princeton professor of neuroscience and the director of the Princeton Election Consortium (election.princeton.edu), the online aggregator of state and national election polls that in recent years has been spectacularly accurate (especially in 2008 and 2012) as well as abysmally wrong (2016, of course).
Wang has created a statistical test that, he believes, can be used by judges to help decide whether a district has been unlawfully drawn to favor one party. Wang may get a chance to argue his point in 2017 in a case involving alleged gerrymandering in North Carolina. The plaintiff, Common Cause, is expected to call Wang as an expert witness.
Even the Trump administration might find some useful advice in Wang’s approach to politics and to his Princeton Election Consortium, which is intended for voters of any party to “ help direct efforts and resources” so that energy can be channeled to races that are close.
In a December 16 post on election.princeton.edu Wang suggested several “action items for democracy’s survival.” Among them:
1. Join your Representative’s party. This can be a tough one to do mentally, but it can pay off.
David Wasserman at Cook Political Report/FiveThirtyEight points out a major problem: most districts are not competitive. Mostly because of population clustering, with an additional boost from gerrymandering, like-minded people are clustered within legislative districts. And when districts are lopsided in their partisan makeup, the only competitive legislative election is the primary.
In both parties, representatives will face pressures to cave if and when our institutions come under threat. Since most general elections carry no suspense, I suggest that you put your effort where you have the most leverage: the primary. This has a consequence: to influence your representative, register to his/her party. That may mean changing parties! The Republican Party in particular needs to be brought back from its Trumpist death spiral.
2. Contact your local and state officials. Because they have fewer constituents, they are more likely to be responsive. This is especially important if you think your representative is swayable, or if he/she is a mismatch to the state partisan leaning.
3. Keep the media on task. A free press is one of our remaining defenses. But news organizations face many pitfalls, including:
Choosing unimportant stories over important ones (Kanye instead of Rex Tillerson); pressure to offer “both sides” balance (this attitude was once used to normalize lynching); misleading headlines after the story is written; and intimidation from the incoming president.
You can help by contacting editors, writers, and producers to give them feedback. Keep it friendly.
Wang’s role in the gerrymandering issue, detailed in the November 9 issue of U.S. 1, published the day after the 2016 election, was also featured in a new book by David Daley, editor-in-chief of Salon magazine. The title of the book, “Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy,” comes from the political term made popular by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in “All the President’s Men.”
Daley traces the Republican Party’s current control of the House of Representatives to the party’s dismal showing in the 2008 national election and its realization that by controlling state legislatures it could also control the re-districting that would accompany the 2010 Census. Herewith an excerpt:
Sam Wang has sleuthed out the impact of gerrymandering as well as anyone. His real passion is good government. . . . In 2012 he called 49 of 50 states, but more impressively, predicted the exact two-candidate percentages for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, 51.1 to 48.9. . . [But] Wang wasn’t impressed with his own work. He had argued throughout the fall that Democrats had a shot to take back the House in 2012 if they carried the aggregate popular vote. . . Democrats earned 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in congressional races nationwide, but captured just eight additional House seats. Republicans maintained control . . Wang had gotten the numbers right but the politics wrong.
. . . He applied his background in neuroscience and statistical research to try to understand his error and the historic aberration that, for only the second time since World War II, had prevented the party with the most overall votes from capturing the House. Wang wanted to determine, as scientifically as possible, whether the artful line-drawing was the reason Republicans had kept control.
. . . Start with Pennsylvania. Wang had his computer run 1,000 simulations for outcomes with a 50.7 Democratic/49.3 Republican vote. The median result? 9.7 GOP seats, 8.3 Democratic seats. The actual result in Pennsylvania? 13-5 to the Republicans. The 13-5 result came up once in the 1,000 simulations. The five Democrats won with an average of 76 percent of the vote, the 13 Republicans with 59 percent. That outcome, Wang found, would arise by chance far less than 1 percent of the time. “In other words,” he wrote, “gerrymandering’s contribution to Pennsylvania’s partisan outcome was about five times as large as the effect of overall structural advantages.” Even simpler: the odds against Pennsylvania voters sending 13 Republicans and 5 Democrats to Congress were nearly 1,000 to one.
The numbers suggested to Wang that something had happened to skew the delegation. “This math doesn’t tell you what that something is,” he tells me. “That’s for somebody else to prove. People who are aware of the political process can say, ‘There was a partisan process of drawing boundaries. There was partisan intent.’ All I’m providing is a forensic standard that says, ‘Something happened! Why don’t you go take a look.”’