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Q&A with Sam Wang

Interview by Lynn Adams Smith

Princeton University Professor Sam Wang has published more than 100 articles spanning neuroscience, elections, and democracy reform. A central feature of his research is the use of statistical tools for complex data sets. In 2004, he pioneered methods for the aggregation of state polls to predict U.S. presidential elections. In 2012 he recognized new, systematic distortions in representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, leading to the creation of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. In 2020 he founded the Electoral Innovation Lab, whose mission is to create and apply a practical science of democracy repair.

Here, he answers a few questions as this year’s election draws near.

Princeton University Professor Sam Wang. (Princeton University, Sameer A.Khan/PhotoBuddy)

PM: What is gerrymandering?

SW: Gerrymandering describes the process by which politicians draw political district boundaries to stack the deck for or against a particular individual, group, or party. Despite anything you learned in school about voters electing politicians, gerrymandering allows politicians to pick their voters.

PM: Explain the connection between gerrymandering and the U.S. Census, and the reasoning behind letting politicians redraw district maps.

SW: The United States has some of the worst gerrymandering among major democracies. Here’s why:

In most states, legislatures draw up district maps. That is a bug in the system, since legislators can also run for office under the same map. This creates potential for self-dealing — and an incentive to gerrymander.

The constitutional principle “one person, one vote” means that a state’s congressional and legislative districts have to be of equal population. But of course, numbers change as people move around, and so every 10 years the United States conducts a census to make sure its population measures are up to date. That means that district lines have to be redrawn every 10 years, which means that every 10 years there is a new risk of gerrymandering.

PM: Discuss what factors have made gerrymandering more prevalent and how technology can be used to expose gerrymandering.

SW: Gerrymandering has been with us for over 200 years, but it has worsened in the last few decades. Like a criminal investigator, we can identify means, motive, and opportunity.

Voters have become more reliable in their partisan preference and their data is easily available online; this provides the means. There’s a growing ideological gap between the major parties, reducing opportunities for working across the aisle. This gap creates a motive for making gerrymandering into a team sport. Finally, partisan voters are separated geographically, providing an opportunity to draw advantageous lines.

But technology can also be used to defeat gerrymanders. The oldest technology is statistics: it is easy to test how many districts contain more Republicans or Democrats than the statewide average and calculate the probability that this arose by chance. At a more sophisticated level, an ordinary laptop computer with the right data can randomly generate a million party-blind and Voting Rights Act-compliant maps, which helps to prove to a court that the enacted map is an outlier.

Also, everyday people can get into the mix! Using publicly available software tools like Dave’s Redistricting App or, pretty much anyone can draw a map or offer public testimony about their communities and how they would like to be represented.

PM: How does redistricting cancel votes and help the incumbent party? What are cracking and packing?

SW: In recent years, voters have become pretty reliable in their partisan preference. Because politicians know where these voters live, it is possible to draw district lines to make sure that the opposition’s votes go to waste.

The process of minimizing the other side’s votes, and using one’s own party to win the most possible seats, has two components called cracking and packing. First, break or “crack” your opponent’s voters into groups and spread them over multiple districts, so that there aren’t enough of them to win in any one district. Second, make sure any remaining voters from the other side are ”packed” into very few districts, which all but guarantees their victory in those few districts but ensures your opponent won’t be competitive anywhere else.

PM: What are the different types of gerrymandering?

SW: Three types come to mind.

1) Gerrymandering can guarantee a win for one person in a particular district;

2) Gerrymandering can be done to give an advantage to a whole political party statewide; and

3) Gerrymandering can minimize the influence of an entire racial, ethnic, or community group.

PM: Do both Republicans and Democrats practice gerrymandering?

SW: Oh yes. Any time one party has full control of the legislature, they can commit a partisan gerrymander. Republicans are the offenders in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. Democrats are the offenders in Illinois and Maryland.

PM: With all the court cases surrounding the last presidential election, is the subject of gerrymandering destined to be a legal firestorm? Is there a way to escape this practice?

SW: Just as a thermostat can switch on to control the temperature, a governor’s veto or a court can hold a legislature in check. This way of breaking the cycle of gerrymandering is what engineers and neuroscientists call inhibitory feedback. Also, electing moderate legislators creates room for compromise, and reduces the incentive to gerrymander.

The best way to minimize disruptive lawsuits is to enact an independent citizen commission to take the power away from politicians entirely. Citizen commissions act like a jury, coming together for the sole purpose of redistricting. They do their best to follow the law and disband when they are done. Like a jury, they are selected to avoid conflicts of interest. In states that allow citizen ballot initiatives, voters can create such commissions, taking away the self-dealing that tempts politicians.

PM: Please identify a few of the most notorious examples of gerrymandering.

SW: Individual shapes can be crazy. In 2018, a congressional district was made from pieces of five counties. It reached from south of Philadelphia, through the city, and into areas of Amish country to make a shape that has been derided as looking like “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”

Wisconsin’s legislative map is a computational work of art, designed to disadvantage Democrats. Even though the state is divided close to 50-50, the legislature is guaranteed a Republican majority. Because of the gerrymandered map, Republicans can even get a veto-proof supermajority with less than half of the votes cast. Gerrymandering has made Wisconsinites powerless over their own laws.

PM: You are a professor of neuroscience. What triggered your interest in politics?

SW: I was interested in U.S. political dynamics even before coming to Princeton. In 1995 I took a year off from my postdoctoral research to work in the U.S. Senate on a policy fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Since then, my interest has stayed strong in democracy’s beautiful potential – and its warts.

The human brain is one of the most complex systems we know of. I use the same computational tools that we use in neuroscience to study the product of many brains: political outcomes. These tools excel at taking many complicated observations and making them understandable using simple explanations and data visualization. Bringing the tools of neuroscience to bear on thorny political problems yields new ways of understanding and analyzing data that too often is considered the exclusive realm of policy wonks, and making that knowledge accessible to the broader public.

PM: What is the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and who are your team members?

SW: I started the Gerrymandering Project at Princeton University to do a deep dive into the inequities of American redistricting. Over the years I’ve had a rotating cast of excellent staff, who are now working in places like the Department of Justice and at nonprofit organizations around the country.

I do research with multiple collaborators, including two based in Princeton: Simon Levin, a distinguished mathematical biologist at Princeton University; and Keena Lipsitz, a professor of political science at CUNY Queens College.

PM: What is the Electoral Innovation Lab?

SW: I’ve come to realize that repairing democracy is an all-hands-on-deck activity. I do research with students and postdocs to understand not only redistricting, but voting rules that can empower voters even further. To extend the Princeton Gerrymandering Project’s reach beyond the University, I started the Electoral Innovation Lab (EIL), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

EIL’s mission is to build a science of democracy repair and make the research available to citizen groups around the country. Through EIL, we coordinate work by staff, visiting faculty and summer fellows, and citizen reformers.

The lab’s chief operating officer, Diana Philip, has a long history of building organizations and working on voting rights and democracy. Diana has set up EIL offices in Belshaw House, across from Morven on Stockton Street, where we are surrounded by history and by civic organizations such as the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice and the Witherspoon Institute.

PM: Please identify and explain the graphs and or charts you are sharing.

SW: A good chart can often tell a story that words can’t. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project issues report cards on district maps, evaluating them in terms of partisan fairness, district shapes, and ability to foster competition and racial representation. Everyone understands grades, so we give a grade in different categories. Unlike college, there is very little grade inflation: a C is not great, but it is still passing.

PM: Talk about reform efforts and what individuals can do to make sure their vote is counted.

SW: Each state has its own pressure point for making its democracy work better. In states where voters can amend the constitution, such as Ohio, citizens can gather signatures to create independent commissions. In cities and counties, reforms like ranked-choice voting can help elect consensus and moderate candidates. Organizations like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause can help direct efforts.

In November, citizens everywhere can volunteer to be poll watchers to keep up our historical tradition of accurate counting. That last point will be especially important wherever there is a close legislative, congressional, or presidential race. Visit a swing district or state near you!

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