Through a three-part speaker series entitled “Fixing Bugs in Democracy,” the Princeton Gerrymandering Project — in collaboration with the Pace Center, Service Focus, and Princeton Public Lectures — explored the issues plaguing modern American democracy.
According to neuroscience professor Sam Wang, founder and director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, American democracy is not as effective as it could be.
“I would characterize our democracy as version 1.0: serviceable, but a bit rickety. Just like with all software, new needs arise that were not anticipated. And bugs in the design become apparent as well,” Wang wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian. “So it’s time to think about how to make democracy more responsive to all citizens for decades to come — by building Democracy 2.0.”
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project had to adjust its plans for the event in response to COVID-19, switching from in-person events to virtual town halls over Zoom.
“Our initial intent was to create a series of events that would capture student and community interest in a big election year,” Wang wrote. “Although we can’t have in person attendance, this did have the advantage of helping us attract a broader audience off-campus.”
According to Jason Rhode, National Coordinator for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, the first two events in the speaker series each garnered around 100 viewers, who either participated in the live Zoom calls or watched a recording of the event afterwards.
During the first event, on Thursday, April 2, Wang talked with Ellen Weintraub, a member of the Federal Election Commission. Weintraub spoke at length about microtargeting, which describes online advertisements shown only to individuals who belong to a specific population, as defined by age, gender, or other characteristics.
“Every time we look at something online, the platforms are just sucking up all this data about us and using it to sell ads that are precisely targeted just to that individual,” she said. “Not only are you not getting the same ad as the person in the house next door, you might not even be getting the same ad as the person sitting across the dining room table from you.”
Weintraub also discussed the importance of enacting a mail-only voting system for the 2020 general election, regardless of the cost of implementation.
“We need to make sure that we are healthy, both physically for all of our citizens, but also we want to have a healthy democracy,” she said.
“We don’t want anyone to feel that in order to cast their vote they have to risk their physical safety to do so. I think democracy is worth the money,” Weintraub continued.
The second webinar on Friday, April 10, featured Katie Fahey, a political organizer and executive director of The People, an organization that advocates for a more responsive government. Fahey spoke with Wang and Julian Zelizer, a Woodrow Wilson School and history professor.
For Fahey, her political organizing all began with a Facebook post about the issues caused by gerrymandering. She began connecting with people who held similar views about the subject. She and other citizens then formed an organization called Voters Not Politicians and worked together to get a ballot initiative passed that led to the creation of a nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission in Michigan.
Until that Facebook post, Fahey did not realize that so many others were concerned about the consequences of gerrymandering.
“I felt really alone before. I would read or listen to the news, and I was like, ‘Doesn’t anybody care that this system is so screwed up?’” Fahey said.
After she was featured in the press, people around the country reached out to Fahey and her organization for assistance in organizing similar political movements.
“‘The People’ is trying to take the lessons that we learned, not only about gerrymandering, but also about organizing, and helping to pay it forward to the rest of the world. If you’re working on systemic democracy reform issues, we want to try to help,” she explained.
In the last webinar on Friday, April 18, author and journalist David Daley spoke in conversation with Wang and Zelizer about the threat of partisan gerrymandering.
“Gerrymandering is cheating. It cheats people out of fair elections, it cheats people out of accountable representation, and it’s not about which side wins,” Daley said.
“It’s about whether or not a majority of Americans are able to translate themselves into a majority of seats or whether there’s been some kind of enduring minority rule enacted, and I think we have to be aware of what the partisan consequences are without seeing it through a partisan lens,” he continued.
For his latest book “Unrigged: How Americans are Battling Back to Save Democracy,” Daley traveled around the country to find examples of ordinary citizens fighting against gerrymandering.
“There were these amazing examples of citizens that sort of stood up and pushed back against these big structural inequities that all the experts thought were way too hard to do something about and people, whether out of not knowing how hard they’d be to take on or just determination to grab their democracy back, took hold and started doing the work,” he said.
The speaker series showed Rhode how, even during a global pandemic, people care about the state of American democracy today.
“People have a real interest and passion for these issues, so in some ways, it’s even more encouraging to see that people have been willing to sign up and watch and join in and ask questions, even during this new and unusual time,” he said.
Several students who attended the webinars underscored these sentiments.
“I found the town hall with Commissioner Weintraub and Professor Wang to be incredibly interesting,” Dylan Shapiro ’23 wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’
“I also appreciate that Professor Wang fielded questions through Twitter, as in my work on campaign finance reform, Commissioner Weintraub was someone I was very aware of who was active in fighting for progress on the issue,” Shapiro continued.
According to Ben Gelman ’22, the discussion of issues affecting democracy was particularly important because of current events regarding the response to COVID-19.
“It was good to get a refresher on the basics of issues like gerrymandering, money in politics, and how social media affects elections, while also hearing experts delve deeper into all these issues,” Gelman wrote in an email.
“The pandemic has only made all of these problems more relevant, so it felt good to engage with such a timely issue,” he added.