Associate Professor Emerita of Economics Jo Beth Mertens is one of just 30 Ph.D.s accepted to the expert witness training program administered by the nonpartisan Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group (MGGG). Led by Tufts University professor Moon Duchin, the MGGG is a small team of Boston-based mathematicians studying “applications of geometry and computing to U.S. redistricting” under the premise that “gerrymandering of all kinds is a fundamental threat to our democracy,” according to the group’s website.
As “a concerned citizen, looking for ways to help strengthen our democracy,” Mertens has found an avenue that aligns with her skill set. “I am very excited about the opportunity, and feel very honored to be chosen to participate,” she says.
In August, Mertens will join other researchers from a variety of backgrounds for a week-long MGGG workshop featuring a series of lectures and, most notably, specialized trainings and redistricting hackathons. During the expert witness training sessions in which Mertens will participate, legal specialists will discuss principles for effective expert testimony and community support surrounding the geometric considerations of redistricting.
“Gerrymandering is an issue I have long been concerned about,” says Mertens, whose interest “stems from my belief in a democratic system that is fair and transparent. Partisan-based gerrymandering is a practice used by both major parties. I believe the concept of one person, one vote is vital to a functioning democracy, and while the courts have been able to devise a standard for determining unconstitutional race-based gerrymandering, the standard for partisan-based gerrymandering has been elusive.”
That standard for determining partisan-based gerrymandering might be found in mathematical concepts that can bring precision and clarity to the inconsistent practice of defining voting districts. MGGG hopes to equip researchers from across the country with the context and vocabulary “to convey complex arguments to a lay audience,” Mertens says.
To that end, the MGGG workshops will begin with a series of lectures by national experts in mathematics, political science, law and civil rights, followed by two days of trainings and hackathons. The lectures will be open to the public and made available online.
An expert in public finance and public policy, Mertens has been a Peace Corps volunteer and a Fulbright Scholar, and has worked as a tax policy consultant for the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the U.S. Treasury, and USAID in many countries, including: Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria, Guyana, Mongolia, Kosovo, Russia and Ukraine. She joined the HWS faculty in 1997 and in 2005, she was named New York State Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. She has taught previously at Florida Atlantic University and was a visiting instructor at the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning. Mertens’ scholarship has appeared in The Sociological Quarterly, Service-Learning and the Liberal Arts: How and Why It Works, and Public Budgeting and Finance. She is the author of numerous technical reports. She served as chair of the Economics Department, director of the Public Policy Program, chair of the Committee on the Faculty, and in numerous other roles on campus. In 2011, Mertens was named the Chi Phi Fraternity’s National Faculty Adviser of the Year. Mertens earned her B.S.B.A. from the University of Arkansas, her M.A. from Duke University, and her Ph.D. from Emory University.