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PART I | Confronting gerrymandering: A New Gilded Age

Why structural reform can’t wait in the fight for electoral justice

<h6>Sierra Stern / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sierra Stern / The Daily Princetonian

With the time for redrawing voting districts right around the corner, it is pressing that gerrymandering is on everyone’s radar. This article is the first in a series of three that will explore the need for structural reform in the electoral system, the power of data to achieve these ends, and the ongoing efforts at Princeton in the Electoral Innovation Lab. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, as we transition from the Trump era, we find ourselves in what many consider to be a “New Gilded Age.” 

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One of the most notable transitions in U.S. history was the Gilded Age from the 1870s to around 1900. Coined by Mark Twain, its name was inspired by gilding, a process where materials like wood and cheap metals are coated in very thin layers of gold. Such a process poignantly spoke to the United States’ status during this time — a glittery façade of economic growth over severe corruption, political polarization, and social ills. 

Corporate leaders from Carnegie to Rockefeller (whose name sprawl boldly across my residential college) held immense power through behemoth monopolies. A case in point of this economic consolidation lies in the fact that less than one percent of the U.S. population owned 51 percent of the wealth. Meanwhile, America’s heinous tradition of racism ailed communities of color across the country: Jim Crow emerged on the coattails of slavery, the Indian Appropriations Act stripped Indigenous tribes of their right to sovereignty, and the Chinese Exclusion Act augmented an already deep sense of xenophobia. 

So while wealth rapidly amassed for the most fortunate, the Gilded Age left many Americans in a polarized state of utter destitution. 

These burgeoning divides eventually led to the Progressive Era, which ushered in a new emphasis on social change. Such values helped pave the way for women’s suffrage, antitrust legislation, and expanded social welfare, signaling a long-due shift from the Gilded Age.

It is important to note that much of this newfound infrastructure was leveraged against nonwhite communities through tactics like voter suppression, eugenics, and overall unequal distribution of the social welfare pie. This makes the label “progressive” nominal at best. Nevertheless, this bygone era stands as a model for what structural reformers could achieve. 

We find ourselves at a similar juncture, according to scholars like Princeton’s own Dr. Sam Wang. 

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As a keen observer of the electoral process and founder of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project (PGP), Dr. Wang has the data to prove it. He notes that from 1876 to 1896 and 2000 to 2016, 10 out of 11 presidential elections were won by a smaller popular vote margin than the historical median. During the original Gilded Age, two out of five presidential winners lost the popular vote — in the same way that George W. Bush and Donald Trump won only under the auspices of the electoral college. Dr. Wang distills these anomalous victories to be the result of fractures within the major political parties. And with each party experiencing an increasing ideological shift towards the margins, this conclusion appears abundantly true.

There are many such contemporary semblances to the Gilded Age. The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically exacerbated economic inequality between the majority of Americans and the über-rich. The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol mirrors the deterioration of constitutional values that plagued the Gilded Age. Race continues to be an axis of inequality as police brutality, electoral oppression, and other discriminatory practices persist. 

Therefore, if we are to mend these ever-growing divides and bring about a truly Progressive Era, we must push for governmental reform that is structural

It is not enough to rely on individual elected officials to make a change. A structural approach will ensure not only that marginalized communities are at the forefront of progressive change but that these communities’ needs are prioritized in every election cycle thereafter.

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One crucial arena in which we can accomplish this structural reform is the fight against gerrymandering. Every decade, a census is conducted all across the country. Each state redistricting authority uses that data to redraw voting districts to reflect changes in the population in legislative representation. While this sounds straightforward on paper, redistricting has been historically manipulated along partisan lines to create boundaries that protect the interest of the controlling party (and class) of a state. For many nonwhite Americans, this has largely meant the erasure of their electoral impact — a methodical suppression of their voices.

The Center for American Progress concluded that gerrymandering has been responsible for awarding 59 seats to parties that otherwise would not have won in the U.S House of Representatives from 2012 to 2016 alone. Gerrymandering means the popular will is not heard. “Safe” districts mean that representatives can ignore certain constituencies. The result: voters become disillusioned (and understandably so). With our country gearing up to redraw districts in 2021, it is crucial that we work to dismantle this unethical tactic and, to borrow words from PGP, “patch holes and fix bugs.”

Here at Princeton, there are ongoing efforts to counter gerrymandering. 

The Electoral Innovation Lab (EIL) — the umbrella organization that PGP falls under — seeks to enact such change by employing an interdisciplinary strategy. For example, in their effort to combat gerrymandering in the 2021 redistricting cycle, EIL has extensively used data science to expose and redress institutional weaknesses. Their combined use of math and law to elucidate problems in the electoral system signals a sea of change in how we think about reform. Using careful analysis, reformers can move beyond viewing issues as the result of individual decisions or impenetrable structural flaws, and start to more effectively and innovatively imagine reforms to the systems that preserve injustice. 

In addition to their own in-house work, EIL also works alongside student-run organizations on campus such as Representable, which was founded in 2019 as a final project for COS 333: Advanced Programming Techniques. Representable is a resource that allows anyone to draw a map of their district which, in turn, allows them to highlight common social, economic, and political interests that reside in certain geographical areas. These areas are referred to as Communities of Interest (COI). Being able to properly map these COI is powerful, as over half of the state redistricting authorities are required to take them into account when redistricting.

Structural change must be prioritized if we hope to put the New Gilded Age behind us. I urge you to keep gerrymandering on your radar. From the Electoral Innovation Lab to Representable, we have incredible minds working on campus to transform how we draw voting districts. It is important work like this that will fix the age-old bugs in redistricting and finally usher in an era that is progressive both in name and practice. 

For, after all, structural change to the U.S. electoral system is not only important to a fair, modern American democracy, but it must be a precursor.

Collin Riggins is a first-year student from Kansas City, Mo. He can be reached at riggins@princeton.edu. 

Jason Rhode, the National Coordinator of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, provided guidance in writing this piece. He can be reached at jrhode@princeton.edu. 

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