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PART III | Confronting Gerrymandering: An interdisciplinary fight

<h6>Dwight Burdette/Wikimedia Commons</h6>
Dwight Burdette/Wikimedia Commons

With the window for redrawing voting districts upon us, the topic of gerrymandering should be on everyone’s radar. This article is the third and final edition in a series that explores 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. You can find the first two articles of the series here.

I admit, I am guilty of harboring narrow views of the fight against gerrymandering. On a campus (and quite frankly in a world) dominated by STEM, I assumed that electoral reform was connected to big data, crunching numbers, and drawing voting maps — things that do not leave much room for humanities-oriented folks like myself. The fight against gerrymandering seemed like a task best left for, say, a quantitative think tank.

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My limited perception of electoral reform shrouds the countless disciplines that are, and always have been, indispensable to electoral reform.

That is not to say that data science is not extremely vital, because without a doubt it is. Data scientists have made incredible strides to expose the negative impacts of gerrymandering. They have created algorithms that draw thousands of maps which can then overlay maps passed by state legislatures to test their efficacy. They have compiled huge swaths of data to make election results more accessible to the public. In short, they have used the very data that created safe districts to, in turn, dismantle them.

However, data science is just the beginning.

For example, some of the most important actors in electoral reform come from the humanities: lawyers. From Shaw v. Reno in 1993 to the more recent Rucho v. Common Cause in 2019, legal experts have been active forces on the ground advocating for an end to gerrymandering.

A case for the need for legal expertise is in the mission of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which aims to bridge mathematics with law. The project’s senior legal advisor, Adam Podowitz-Thomas, noted that effectuating electoral reform (which is oftentimes found through data) simply cannot work without a deep “understanding of the legal framework in which reform can happen.” Such knowledge allows everyone to know what is possible under the constraints of the status quo.

At the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, and in gerrymandering efforts everywhere, there is little movement without those engaged in legal efforts.

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Beyond the field, imagine a movement without effective journalists and authors. Much of the mainstream political discourse (for better or for worse) around gerrymandering is due in large part to writers voicing its importance. I spoke with author, journalist, and former editor-in-chief of Salon, David Daley, to better understand the role those with his expertise play in the push for electoral reform.

In 2012, Daley asked the big question, “Why didn’t the democrats take back the House in 2012?” After all, they had won 1.4 million more votes. President Obama had just been re-elected and the Democrats garnered two seats in the Senate. Questions like these led Daley to begin scrutinizing the electoral system through his lens as a journalist. This curiosity led him to a policy named REDMAP which methodically employed gerrymandering tactics to redraw districts across the country.

After extensive research, Daley authored the book Ratf**ked, which has enlivened conservation and awareness around gerrymandering. His investigative approach teases out the ways in which lawmakers have “hacked” the electoral system, presenting this phenomenon in a way that is both digestible and compelling for readers across the globe. His work, alongside other writers, has influenced and reinvented traditional thinking around gerrymandering.

And of course, what would electoral reform be without the role of art? There is nothing that draws attention more than a well-executed political cartoon. Just look at the first edition in my series Confronting Gerrymandering titled A New Gilded Age. Daily Princetonian cartoonist Sierra Stern ’24 fashioned a comical, yet poignant, graphic that speaks louder than my op-ed ever could.

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The fight against gerrymandering is expansive. It is endlessly interdisciplinary. There are countless disciplines that play crucial roles in strides to re-imagine voting as we know it. However, even that (comforting) fact should be taken at face value. It was not too long ago that Daley jokingly stated that “you were considered a flat-earther if you thought gerrymandering was a problem.” That is, before writers and activists had the courage to ignite a sense of urgency in the general public.

Ultimately, the process of redrawing fair, just voting maps does not work without a confluence of diverse disciplines. There are too many questions that a quantitative approach alone simply cannot answer, such as the individuality of communities and their unique needs.

Indeed, these are things only a human-centered approach can and has gleaned.

That is all to say, it is we who have the potential to expand what kind of minds the future of our democracy necessitates. We just need the volition to match that. I urge everyone to resist counting themselves out, discounting their skill sets, or leaving solutions to gerrymandering for someone else, like I did. Rather, find ways to get involved and then act on it!

The time is now to pay close attention to the issue of gerrymandering. As we await the 2020 census details, we have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to really impact how voting maps are drawn this upcoming redistricting cycle. This series has explored the significance of the New Gilded Age in which we find ourselves, the need for just data, and the expansive, interdisciplinary nature of the fight for electoral reform. I, for one, am excited for the change that lies ahead. I am hopeful that we will rise to the occasion, for it is not like there is any other option for our democracy.

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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