Earlier this month Democrats in the New Jersey legislature introduced a redistricting measure that critics said would give a clear advantage to Democrats in Congressional and state-level elections. Republicans were all opposed, the New York Times editorial board came out against the measure in an op-ed that accused Democrats of playing “power games” and attempting an “antidemocratic maneuver,” and Democratic Governor Phil Murphy posted a video on Twitter stating his opposition. A vote scheduled for December 17, the final legislative session of the year, was cancelled, with Democrats acknowledging they may not have the votes needed to get the measure approved.
Among those concerned about the underlying issues of fair representation, many turned to one group for its analysis of its potential impact on future election outcomes: the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. The Princeton University-based group uses the tagline “practical bug fixes for democracy.” On its website, gerrymander.princeton.edu, the team of number crunchers and data analysts explains that it develops and uses “mathematical tests that rigorously diagnose unequal opportunity and unfair outcomes in district maps” and is “developing methods for determining whether individuals’ votes are diluted in violation of Equal Protection.”
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project is led by Sam Wang, a neuroscience professor who has done important work on the mechanisms of autism but is perhaps best known as founder of the Princeton Election Consortium, a blog and poll-aggregating website that has famously predicted the outcomes of national elections with remarkable accuracy — and also infamously mis-predicted the 2016 presidential race in favor of Hillary Clinton.
Other members of the team include Hannah Wheelan, a data specialist who holds a bachelor’s degree in math; Will Adler, a computational research specialist with a PhD in computational neuroscience; and two attorneys, Rick Ober and Ben Williams.
Wang will show how his multidisciplinary team combines its talents when he speaks on “How Law and Data Can Work Together to End Gerrymandering” at the Princeton Bar Association meeting on Wednesday, December 19, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. at TPC Jasna Polana in Princeton. Cost: $65, $50 for members. For more information and to register visit www.princetonbarassociation.org.
The gerrymandering project’s website is full of popular and scholarly articles the team has published, including amicus briefs in two partisan gerrymandering cases that have reached the Supreme Court — Harris v. Arizona and Gill v. Whitford, about a 2011 redistricting plan in Wisconsin. But the focus in recent days has been closer to home, with several blog posts on the Princeton Election Consortium website, election.princeton.edu, dedicated to analysis of New Jersey’s redistricting proposal.
In a December 2 blog posting, Wang outlined the Princeton Gerrymandering Project’s main takeaways from its analysis of the proposed amendment:
The legislation doesn’t guarantee a Democratic advantage. But it does give cover to anyone who wants to commit a gerrymander, by providing standards that give the appearance of fairness.
Under this legislation, Democrats or Republicans could still draw lines to their advantage. We have examples that prove this. Either side would even have an argument to the independent tie-breaking commissioner that they were simply following the law to a maximum extent.
Gerrymanders can be camouflaged by calling close but reliable wins “competitive,” which is misleading. And close, reliable wins across the board are how a party cements an advantage for itself. Because the independent commissioner can pick either side’s map, it turns redistricting into a giant coin toss.
It creates incentives for either party to weaken all incumbents, including its own incumbents. They would be rewarded for taking risks in search of a big win. Some competition is good, but this legislation would reward volatility. For example, we have identified a list of districts whose Democratic incumbents would become pawns for their own party to push around, in search of a partisan advantage.
“More than anything, “the blog post continues, “this legislation is a missed opportunity. If it passes, it takes the place of genuinely good reform. And that’s a loss for all New Jerseyans.”
Of course, in the era of “fake news” and distrust of the media, Wang did not reserve all of his criticism for state legislators. In a blog post dated December 15 and titled “How a lazy media narrative has missed the boat on the NJ redistricting story,” he also took issue with news coverage of the bill:
“Much news coverage of the New Jersey redistricting amendment has characterized it as a Democratic power grab. But this is a lazy dependence on the national narrative of partisan warfare. Here in the Garden State, this is an intra-party squabble. Republicans are bystanders — and minorities are missing a chance at getting much-needed protection from the Supreme Court.
“As fun as it is for the press to claim ‘both sides do it,’ that’s actually not true in this case. In fact, there is so much confusion that proponents and opponents of the legislation are both citing Princeton Gerrymandering Project analysis — though in some cases, somewhat selectively.”