July 18, 2019

OpenPrecincts: Can Citizen Science Improve Gerrymandering Reform?

How the American public understand gerrymandering and collect data that could lead to fairer, more representative voting districts across the US?

Speaking today at CITP are Ben Williams and Hannah Wheelen of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, part of a team with Sam Wang, William Adler, Steve Birnbaum, Rick Ober, and James Turk. Ben is the lead coordinator for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project’s research and organizational partnerships. Hannah, who is also speaking, coordinates the collection of voting precinct boundary information.

What’s Gerrymandering and Why Does it Matter?

Ben opens by explaining what gerrymandering is and why it matters. Reapportionment is a process by which congressional districts are allocated to the states after each decennial census. The process of redrawing those lines is called redistricting. When redistricting happens, politicians sometimes engage in gerrymandering, the practice of redrawing the lines to benefit a particular party– something that is common behavior by all parties.

Who has the power to redistrict federal lines? Depending on state law, redistricting is done by by different parties, who have different kinds of

  • independent commissions who make the decisions, independently from the politicians affected by it
  • advisory commissions who advise a legislature but have no decision-making power
  • politician or political appointees
  • state legislatures

Ben tells us that gerrymandering has been part of US democracy ever since the first congress. He tells us about Patrick Henry, governor of Virginia, who redrew the lines to try to favor James Monroe over James Madison. The term came into use in the 19th century, and it has remained common since then.

Why Do People Care About Gerrymandering And What Can We Do About It?

Ben tells us about the Tea Party Wave in 2010, when Republicans announced in the Wall Street Journal a systematic plan, called REDMAP, to redraw districts to establish a majority for republicans in the US for a decade. Democrats have also done similar things on a smaller scale. Since then, the designer of the REDMAP plan has become an advocate for reform, says Ben.

How do we solve gerrymandering if the point is that politicians use it to establish their power and are unlikely to give it up? Ben describes three structures:

  • Create independent commissions to draw the lines. Ballot initiatives in MI, CO, UT, and MO and state legislative action (VA) have put commissions in place.
  • Require governors to approve the plan, and give the governor the capcity to refer district lines to courts (WI, MD)
  • State supreme courts (PA, NC?)

These structures have been achieved in some states, through a variety of means: litigation, and through political campaigns. Ben also hopes that if citizens can learn to recognize gerrymandering, they can spot it and organize to respond as needed.

Decisions and controversies about gerrymandering need reliable evidence, especially at times when different sides bring their own experts to a conversation. Ben describes the projects that have been done so far, summarized the recent paper, “An Antidote for Gobbledygook: Organizing the Judge’s Partisan Gerrymandering Toolkit into a Two-Part Framework.” He also mentions the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group at Tufts and MIT and work by Procaccia and Pegden at Carnegie Mellon.

Citizen Science Solutions to the Bad Data Problem in Redistricting Accountability

These many tools have opened new capacities for citizens to have an informed voice on redistricting conversations. Unfortunately, all of these projects rely on precinct level data on the geography of voting precincts and vote counts at a precinct level. Hannah talks to us about the challenge of contacting thousands of counties for precinct-level voting data. In many cases, national datasets of voter behavior are actually wrong– when you check the paper records held by local areas, you find that the boundaries are often wrong. Worse, errors are so common that gerrymandering datasets could easily produce mistaken outcomes. With too many errors for researchers to untangle, how can these data tools be useful?

Might local citizens be able to contribute to a high quality national dataset about voting precincts, and then use that data to hold politicians accountable? Hannah tells us about OpenPrecincts, a citizen science project by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to organize the public to create accurate datasets about voter records. Hannah tells us about the many grassroots organizations that they are hoping to empower to collect data for their entire state.