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Princeton Gerrymandering Project – 2019, in Review

December 31st, 2019, 9:46am by Sam Wang


The Princeton Gerrymandering ProjectWhat a year (and what a decade) it was for gerrymandering. It was also a pivotal year for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, as we adapted to the next stage of redistricting reform. Even as we have grown, we’re still using law, math, and data to help power change. But we have now made our focus local, with a state-by-state approach to fair districting. 

In an engineering sense, gerrymandering is a feedback loop in which legislators draw themselves into power for a decade – which they can do again and again. I’m more optimistic than I have been in years that we can address the problem. Here’s how my team at Princeton is providing tools to help break the feedback loop.

In January, we released our Citizen’s Guide for Redistricting in Michigan, which provided analysis and guidance for Michigan’s new independent redistricting commission. This was presented to the Secretary of State of Michigan and Voters Not Politicians in January, Our guide was used by the Secretary to prepare and develop the application process for selecting the commission. 

On the East Coast, around the same time, the Bethune-Hill racial gerrymandering case in Virginia heated up. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gathered, processed, and mapped precinct-level election results for this major case, which led to the redrawing of one-third of the state legislative districts. We published our dataset at OpenPrecincts.org, which allowed for MGGG’s analysis and more of our own. We also maintained a digital map viewing tool, which allowed users to see all maps that were relevant to the case. This tool helped citizens of Virginia explore how the electoral lines were affecting them, and gave them the power to easily compare different plans. Our analysis was even used by the Special Master to support his work. 

All of this work paid off in November. With a fairer map, the General Assembly reflected the wishes of the voters, and gave a solid governing majority to Democrats. Up ahead, that majority must now pass a redistricting reform amendment, which had bipartisan support in 2019. If legislators pass the amendment again in 2020 (a necessary step), our Voter’s Guide to Redistricting in Virginia recommends enabling legislation to make the amendment succeed better. 

Precinct-level data is central to giving citizens full access to redistricting. In May we unveiled OpenPrecincts.org, a central, accessible web resource for the redistricting reform community to visualize and download precinct data. OpenPrecincts has a dozen states so far, with more on the way in 2020. Part of developing OpenPrecincts was designing a universal data format that fits the needs of users and developers. We released our OpenPrecincts Data Schema in September, and we are working to perfect it and expand its use. 

After meeting many great collaborators on OpenPrecincts, we decided to host a summit to bring them together in person to solve problems and coordinate. In May, our Mapping and Programming Summit (MAPS) was both enjoyable and productive. In 2020 we’ll have more gatherings at Princeton as Census and redistricting deadlines heat up. 

A large group of people standing together outside of the science library at Princeton University. All are smiling and the people in the front have their hands clasped in front of them.

In June, the Supreme Court let the nation down by declaring partisan gerrymandering claims to be outside the reach of federal courts. We responded with a deep dive into state constitutions and case law to find state-level routes to redistricting reform. Call it voting-rights federalism. Our approach appears in a law review article which will soon be published in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law. And we’ve linked it to data analytics, for which we won first prize from Common Cause in a contest held last year.

Here at home in New Jersey, we continued our push against bad “reform.” After helping in 2018 to put the brakes on proposed legislation that would have locked in an advantage for the majority, we joined with other leading academics to put out a best-practices report on how to bring real reform to the Garden State.

In the fall we became engaged in redistricting action in North Carolina as both General Assembly and Congressional maps were redrawn under court order. We helped journalists understand the technical aspects of the map drawing process and map analysis. We’re preparing a Journalist’s Guide to Covering Redistricting in North Carolina. We were helped by interns from N.C. State University and contacts in the reform community, and learned the importance of local networks in driving change. In 2020, a top priority for us will be assisting those networks of reformers and journalists as they get stronger.

We’re pleased to congratulate team members who have moved on to new adventures – and welcome new team members whose talents match our growing needs. Will Adler, the Project’s key statistical analyst since 2017, is now working on oversight for Elizabeth Warren’s Senate staff as a Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ben Williams, who managed our group and provided legal analysis for over a year, is now a Policy Specialist for Elections and Redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislators. James Turk, our software architect who developed the OpenPrecincts infrastructure, has returned to his long-term project, OpenStates. 

In 2020, we’re moving forward strongly with four new team members. Hope Johnson is our new analyst and data journalist. Aaron Barden is our new legal and policy analyst. Jason Rhode is our new outreach coordinator. And Andrew Milich is a visiting associate product manager from Schmidt Futures. They join project coordinator Hannah Wheelen and keep the Princeton Gerrymandering Project going. Finally, I can’t forget our funders who make it all possible: Schmidt Futures, the Marilyn J. Simons Foundation, Bob and Lynn Johnston, and many other donors. Thank you!

Keep an eye out for more updates during 2020, as we continue to move the needle on redistricting reform across the country. We’d love to hear from you – write us at gerrymander@princeton.edu. (And you can support us by donating here.)

Happy New Year!

Tags: House · Princeton · Redistricting

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