The Mappers' Tale: The Waxenberg Family of Lords Valley

Chris Satullo| December 3rd, 2018

Michael Waxenberg (upper right) and his family with U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright (upper left) | Image Credit: Michael Waxenberg

Michael Waxenberg of Pike County got really interested in gerrymandering during the Pennsylvania court case last winter. He was the head geek in his family, but when he enlisted his daughters to help do a Draw the Lines map, one of them asked the genius question that showed the Waxenbergs the path to their map.

How did you first become interested in Draw the Lines?

Our “Draw the Lines” entry started out as just a fun family project and as a gentle civics lesson for our teenage daughters. The story goes back further, though: to January, when the state Supreme Court voided the 2011 congressional gerrymander.

A few days after the SCoPA decision, I read a great opinion piece by professor John Nagle of Carnegie Mellon. He is a leading advocate of “anti-gerrymandering,” which basically means using the techniques of partisan mapmakers to create competitive districts rather than safe ones.

He argued that Pennsylvania should pursue more ambitious goals than just fixing the most egregious flaws of the old map. I e-mailed a few questions to Dr. Nagle, who shared his own research and pointed me toward scholarly work by thought leaders like Moon Duchin of MIT and Jowei Chen of Minnesota. I also reached out to Pennsylvania's legendary citizen-crusader herself, Amanda Holt, who was wonderfully generous with her insights. 

 I was hooked on the possibilities for voter empowerment, though my family wondered what I would ever do with the new knowledge.  A few months later, the Draw the Lines PA contest offered an opportunity to put theory into practice.

In the meantime, the new Pennsylvania map put our Pike County home in a new district with a new incumbent, Matt Cartwright. Our family got to meet Rep. Cartwright, his family, and some of his staff in the spring.

The surprise for our daughters was that the whole team was so normal – “just folks”. That sort of drove home the point that politics – even at the national level – is much more accessible and human than they ever imagined and something they could possibly influence. So, when DTL-PA launched, we were already primed.

What goals did you have in mind for your map(s) when you started drawing? Why were those your priorities?

Initially, we tried to strike an even balance among the usual competing priorities: compactness, competitive balance, population equivalence, and preserving jurisdictional boundaries. The results were pretty boring, and generally mirrored the SCoPA map  - aside from a few cities like Reading and Wilkes-Barre, which kept moving between districts.

On about the fifth try, our middle daughter asked why it was so important to respect county borders and keep districts geometrically compact. I explained that, based on the relevant case law, a map that doesn’t respect those restrictions is vulnerable to challenge in court.

 She suggested thinking outside that box, because all of our litigation-proof maps contained 10-12 “safe” districts, in which one party or the other enjoyed a clear partisan advantage. So we set out to draw a map that would give the most voters a meaningful chance to influence the result. 

As you worked on your map(s), what kinds of tradeoffs or tough decisions did you find yourself having to weigh?

In trying to maximize competitive districts, we gradually breached jurisdictional boundaries and communities of interest.  In the end, we largely ignored them. Compactness went out the window too.

So our “Max Competitive” map resembles a paisley scarf, with several districts that swirl into far-flung areas to blend urban, suburban, and rural voters. That might be a good thing, in these starkly partisan times. A representative with diverse constituents has to respect disparate views and balance competing priorities. That’s definitely the case with Congressman Cartwright, and it should work elsewhere.

As a separate effort, we also tried to create a highly competitive map within the usual restrictions. The results were decent, but those efforts generally topped out at 10 or 11 battleground districts, compared to 17 when we broke the rules.  The concentration of Democrats in the cities, and Republicans elsewhere, pits compactness against competitiveness. You can pursue one or the other, or balance the two; but you can’t optimize both. 

What's the part or quality of your map(s) that you're happiest about?

We have a special place in our hearts for the “Max Competitive” map, which is basically our tribute to Dr. Nagle. We packed and cracked ruthlessly to create 17 competitive districts. The resulting lines are fanciful. They might even be unconstitutional.

 But they still pass the eyeball test better than the old Seventh District, where Goofy used to kick Donald Duck (or is it the other way around?).  At least our districts are genuinely contiguous, with more to hold them together than a parking lot.

What's the part of your map(s) that you had the most trouble with or that frustrated you the most?

Creating competitive districts in central or southeastern Pennsylvania takes some ingenuity. Also, population equivalence was more elusive than we expected. We got close enough, just not as close as we hoped.

What DistrictBuilder tools did you find most helpful?

The “Info” button is indispensable, especially for balancing population on a nearly-completed map.  We also liked the different tools for drawing: single-select, multi-select, and polygon, which can be combined with county-level and tract-level selection. The ability to apply different overlays, with variable transparency, was also helpful for context.

The feature we used most was probably “Undo”, because a lot of our changes made things worse, not better. 

What advice/pro tips would you give someone who is about to log on to try to make a map on DistrictBuilder?

For practice, play around with SCoPA’s new congressional map.  On that map, professor Nathan Persily, the special master, did a great job of balancing competing requirements. Beginners can learn a lot from his map.  Once you master the tools, try drawing on a blank canvas, starting from a corner (SE PA if you’re feeling brave; NW or NE if you want to ease into it).

Also, begin with a clear set of objectives. Otherwise, you’re likely to go around in circles, improving your map by one criterion while spoiling it by others.

Are you thinking of doing more maps? If yes, what different goals or approaches might you be taking with those?

When I look at the top of the District Builder leaderboard for population equivalence and see s24582’s map titled “Beat This MWaxenberg,” I know that’s a challenge we will have to take up at some point.

Although we might go back and refine the other Pennsylvania maps, we’re ready to conquer new anti-gerrymandering frontiers. North Carolina, anyone? Texas? Maybe some state legislatures?