By contributor Marc Monseau
Recognizing that an estimated four out of five Americans are under shelter-in-place orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project is launching a series of virtual town halls to encourage civic engagement despite social distancing.
The series, “Fixing Bugs in Democracy,” aims to spur public discussion about some of the many issues currently facing American democracy, from how targeted advertising is used to divide and fragment the electorate to disenfranchisement through gerrymandering.
“We’re at a crucial moment for reform,” said Jason Rhode, national coordinator for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. “Right now, structural change is important for the health of our politics.”
Rhode said that in light of the 2020 Census, it is vitally important to encourage civic involvement in politics, even in the midst of a pandemic. The constitutionally mandated census determines the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives and how congressional and state legislative districts are drawn.
“Being involved in politics at any time is important, but for anyone who is concerned about fair maps and fair districts and about who will pick their legislators, it is extremely important to be involved now,” said Rhode.
The nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project analyzes district maps to understand and eliminate partisan gerrymandering at a state level. The group strives to give activists and legislators the tools they need to identify issues and to drive reform.
To date, three virtual town-halls have been scheduled starting Thursday, April 2. All will be hosted by Sam Wang, founder and director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and professor of neuroscience at Princeton University.
The first town hall will feature Federal Elections Commissioner Ellen Weintraub and focus on how the use of personal data to target online advertising, a technique known as microtargeting, impacts elections.
“Through microtargeting, we only see news that is important to others who have similar interests to our own. This ultimately creates separate digital communities and fractures civil society,” said Rhode. “This is deleterious to the public sphere.”
Future town halls will include voting rights activist Katie Fahey talking about organizing during a pandemic and author David Daley on the topic of gerrymandering.
The virtual town halls will also provide the Princeton Gerrymandering Project with an opportunity to better understand how interactive citizenship can work. “Even separated through social distancing we are part of a larger public, even if we can’t meet face-to-face,” Rhode said.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project is currently registering participants for the following upcoming virtual town halls:
Thursday, April 2, 6:00-7:30 p.m.
Microtargeting: Federal Election Commissioner, Ellen L Weintraub in conversation with Professor Sam Wang
Friday, April 10, 6:00-7:30 p.m.
Organizing During a Pandemic: Activist and Political Organizer Katie Fahey in conversation with Professor Sam Wang
Friday, April 17, 6:00-7:30 p.m.
Gerrymandering: Journalist and author David Daley in conversation with Professor Sam Wang