In mid-February, for the first time in New Jersey’s history, new legislative district maps were determined by a bipartisan vote. Sam Wang, neuroscience professor and the director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and the Electoral Innovation Lab, served in an advisory role in this landmark vote.
Since 1973, the New Jersey Redistricting Commission has gathered every 10 years to debate and decide upon the legislative district maps for the decade to come. The commission is made up of five Democrats and five Republicans, as well as one non-partisan member, referred to as a ‘tiebreaker.’
In the past, members of the commission voted strictly along party lines and the final decision was determined by the tiebreaker. This year, for the first time, the map was adopted after nine members of the committee — four Republicans, four Democrats, and the non-partisan member — voted for it.
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Wang said that there are several reasons why the vote was bipartisan this year.
One reason was that the parties released draft maps to the public in advance, Wang explained.
“In the past, a lot of redistricting has been done behind closed doors, using software that’s not broadly available, through a negotiation process that is often not visible to the public,” Wang said.
Wang argued that releasing the maps allowed citizens and journalists to play a watchdog role.
“I think it builds faith in the process,” he said. “It lets people know that they’re on notice, that they’re being watched.”
Wang and his team advised John E. Wallace Jr. and Judge Philip Carchman, the chair of the Congressional Redistricting Commission and the non-partisan 11th member of the Legislative Apportionment Commission, respectively.
Wang described the process of serving as an advisor in this legislation: “The whole thing is called Hotel Week,” he said. “You go there, and you hole up in there. All the commissioners hole up, their lawyers hole up, we all hole up. And we eat hotel food.”
Wang said that he could not describe the events in detail because it was privileged information.
“I will just say that there was much more information sharing than usual,” he said.
Wang credited Judge Carchman for serving as a mediator: “At the end they came up with a plan that was agreeable to both sides. And as I said, that was the first time ever.”
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Carchman noted that in the past, the tie-breaker had always been a social scientist, while Carchman had judicial experience instead.
“I came into this as a former judge without any stated point of view from a social science perspective,” Carchman said. “So, in that regard, I think to all involved this was a bit of a wild card.”
Carchman also addressed criticism that Wang has received for his work as an advisor in the redistricting process. New Jersey Republican lawmakers accused Wang and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project of bias toward Democrats, and sued. The lawsuit was dismissed by the N.J. Supreme Court on Feb. 3, 2022.
“During the course of this process, various parties have questioned the issue of partisanship of Sam and his team. I will tell you without any question that Sam and his team operated in a completely non-partisan way,” Carchman said. “Their analysis did not favor one party over the other. And, you know, the integrity of his team’s work was beyond question.”
Wang’s team uses a combination of statistical analysis, geospatial analysis, and computer simulation to decide what a fair map would look like for each state.
Despite the historic nature of the bipartisan agreement on new districts, Wang cautioned that the pandemic-related delays in the New Jersey census have also delayed representational fairness. Because New Jersey votes in odd years, instead of even years like most of the country, these legislative maps won’t be used until 2023.
“That means that representational fairness got delayed two years,” Wang said. “Hispanic and Asian communities are the fastest growing communities in New Jersey, and they have to wait two extra years for representation. That’s terrible.”
Outside of providing advice to redistricting commissions, the Gerrymandering Project has analyzed voting districts across the nation in an effort to “understand and eliminate partisan gerrymandering at a state-by-state level,” according to their website. It has also produced reports for legislative district reformers in Virginia and Michigan, and been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Project is currently developing the nation’s first open-source database containing geographic and demographic information on precincts in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
Wang’s team has also begun to shift focus to the next issue: voting rules.
“I’m interested now in reforms like rank-choice voting — other kinds of voting reforms that could make representatives more responsive to voter sentiment,” he said.
“At some level, redistricting is about creating fair representation,” Wang added. “And so now, what we’re hoping for is to help work on responsive representation. So that’s something I’m really excited for in the next ten years.”
Laura Robertson is a News Contributor for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.