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Lines, Lines, Everywhere Lines

BY Nick Judd | Friday, February 4 2011

The U.S. Census Bureau is beginning to release local census data describing the people who live in each state of the union, which means that states across the country will set to work redrawing the lines that determine who represents whom in statehouses and the halls of Congress.

In Virginia, fifteen teams of college students from 12 universities will use open-source district mapping software to build maps from the just-released census data, and a panel of redistricting experts will judge the results in a statewide competition. Christopher Newport University professor Quentin Kidd, who is co-organizing the competition, says he hopes the contest will pressure Virginia's legislature into drawing sensible districts, as opposed to ones that reflect individual legislators' desires for self-preservation.

The results will be displayed in the Library of Virginia, just across the street from Virginia's statehouse. The plan is to have the maps available in time to be considered in side-by-side comparison with the maps drafted by the state legislature, Kidd told me.

"The General Assembly is going to say, 'If we're going to draw some strange districts just to protect somebody, it's going to be really obvious, because we're going to have to answer questions about why our maps look so different from the maps that were drawn without the purposes of gerrymandering," Kidd said.

The U.S. Census Bureau released Virginia's data in its first release. The state has early primaries this year, which puts leaders there under pressure to finish redistricting quickly. Kidd says open-source software is making it easier to get people involved in this esoteric but important set of negotiations.

"There's a whole generation of students now who are in the classroom who don't shy away from a software program, a software program doesn't intimidate them, and so what used to be a really important limitation in terms of people feeling comfortable participating in a process has been eliminated," he said.

It's an easier proposition than it would have been to ask college students to sit down with slide rules and pencils to draw districts, then run the calculations necessary to check if the districts they had built complied with a laundry list of regulations concerning density, total population, racial makeup and any number of other factors, Kidd said.

The teams will have until early March to submit their maps.

The contest in Virginia is just one of many efforts to change the redistricting process around the country. Groups like the Brennan Center for Justice and the Midwest Democracy Network have spent years preparing for this year's remapping of the political landscape, which happens once every ten years, and the use of technology from easily available mapping software to online video — to distribute recordings of training sessions — have been critical parts of their arsenal.

And some states are trying to use technology in new efforts to reach out, too, but don't seem to have a clear strategy to do so. In California, a newly created citizen's redistricting commission is gearing up to hold public hearings across the country and wants to use the Internet to collect public comment — but fears that it will lack the staff to do that.

"We can have much greater impact by having these public hearings someplace, but opening up these avenues of communication so people can watch it and send in a public comment and respond to it," California Citizen's Redistricting Commission Executive Director Daniel Claypool told me.

However, he said, the commission only has a $3 million budget to handle the entire process.

"Money and time are the biggest challenges that we face," he said.

In Alaska, too, a redistricting board is trying to use the Internet to make redistricting more open and transparent. Reached late last month, a spokesman for the commission told me that there were plans to improve a currently bare-bones website over time.

It's unclear what role technology will turn out to play in this year's process, but what is certain is that across the country, advocates and some officials are looking for ways to create a stronger system of two-way communication between the public and government to discuss this issue.

For more, check out our continuing coverage, and give a read to Josh Goodman's recent round-up at Stateline.org.