A team of design thinking students work to enhance fairness and transparency in the democratic process in a summer design thinking intensive.
A computer science student's final project makes impact outside the classroom by giving communities a web-based platform to inform and enable fair redistricting.
A neuroscience professor uses mathematics and data analysis to detect inequities in representation and give activists and reformers the tools they need to create fair and unbiased district maps.
All three Princeton initiatives are working together to develop novel solutions to reform gerrymandering practices and empower underrepresented communities.
Gerrymandering has a long history in the United States. The practice of manipulating district boundaries to give one political party or interest group an unfair advantage pre-dates its naming in 1812 when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry approved a redistricting plan for the state senate that gave an unfair advantage to his party.
Redistricting takes place in each state every ten years following the national census. With the presidential election magnifying the divisive climate in the United States and the impending redistricting slated for 2021, reformers are aware of the importance of finding impartial solutions at this crucial time.
Professor Sam Wang founded the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which uses nonpartisan analysis and mathematics to call out inequities in representation and districting to give activists and reformers the tools they need to build practical solutions.
Wang is no stranger to the political landscape. He has used his expertise to develop tools for the aggregation of state polls and founded the Princeton Election Consortium. When he noticed systematic distortions in representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, he turned his attention to gerrymandering.
"In my regular duties as a neuroscience professor, I spend a lot of time looking at data, whether it be for research or to inform my teaching. And really I'm a math guy. But I'm also a citizen of the United States. One thing I've realized is that democracy is looking a little bit wobbly, and you've probably noticed it too. I think that we can see in the last few years, democracy is not only wobbly, but it's kind of gone off the rails," Wang commented in a recent Princeton Talks lecture.
Recent alum Preeti Iyer and current senior Kyle Barnes, along with three other Princeton CS students founded Representable.org after presenting the idea as a final project in their Advanced Programming Techniques course. With the support and encouragement of Wang, they have developed an open-sourced platform for communities and organizations to gather data to enable unbiased, community-centric redistricting.
With the support and collaboration of Wang and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Representable.org was able to present their work at Keller Center's Innovation Forum last month to bring visibility and attention to their web-based tool.
Barnes spoke of their outreach and plausibility in making a difference in the upcoming redistricting, "We are hopeful that we can make a strong impact in 2021 by mapping all over the country with the support of our partner organizations who are already on the ground fighting gerrymandering." He hopes to get community members excited about using Representable by engaging student activists and civically minded citizens to help get the word out about their technology.
Close the GAP is a team of graduate and undergraduate students who came together in Keller's Tiger Challenge program this summer to bring a design thinking approach to this complicated issue. Wang served as their faculty advisor, and Iyer and Barnes shared valuable insights with the team who spent ten weeks researching gerrymandering practices and theories, interviewing stakeholders, and gathering and analyzing data.
Team member and graduate student Jeff Phaneuf felt being outside the political arena was an advantage, "We are not lawyers or politicians, so we can look at this from a beginner's mindset. That approach has the potential to reveal novel and creative solutions." Phaneuf and his team are focused on increasing public awareness and mobilization of communities as they pursue solutions using human-centric ethnographic techniques to fight gerrymandering in America.
Wang, Iyer, Barnes, and Kumar Garg, Managing Director and Head of Partnerships at Schmidt Futures, will speak at the "Partisan Politics: The Princeton Gerrymandering Project" panel on Thursday, November 5th at the Engage 2020, Princeton's first innovation and entrepreneurship conference. At this well-timed panel, less than 48 hours after Election Day, they will discuss the consequences of the election on both the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and Representable and how they plan to move reform forward to allow for fair and equal representation.