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Online Training for Gerrymanderers-to-Be

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, January 19 2011

Turns out this year there are not one but two ways to change who is going to represent you in government in 2012: Get involved in a nascent campaign for a politician, or start one to cut undesirable politicians out of your legislative district.

Unfortunately, academics and public policy wonks have to go and spoil some good old-fashioned political skullduggery with their silly ideas about "ending" the cycle of petty and self-serving politics, backroom deals and rat-finkery that has traditionally dominated the redistricting process. Allowing these brainiacs and bleeding hearts to make politics less fun yet again are websites like this one, MidwestRedistricting.org, which provides video training, links and white papers on how the redistricting process works and how to actually draw "fair" districts. First the Voting Rights Act, now this!

Broadband Internet and online video were not around for the last redistricting process. Groups like the Midwest Democracy Network, which is behind MidwestRedistricting, are using these tools to try to bring in people who want to have a say in who they share legislators with, but don't have the political background or the general knowledge.

Sure it's easy to understand why people feel like they should be entitled to join what has long been an insider's game. This is the first time that redistricting will be conducted in an era where it's becoming commonplace to stream video of important public meetings live over the Internet, as California's redistricting commission did for its first-ever meetings. (California voters used a 2008 ballot initiative to create a bipartisan commission to handle redistricting, and in 2010, gave it control of congressional districts, too.)

What's more, U.S. Census data — which is very useful for telling where minority populations are, so you can cut them out of your district along with your political enemies — is not only more easily accessible but also more easily parsable thanks to web applications including this one, which was built specifically to help draw new districts. Tools for finding like-minded people, like Twitter and Facebook, didn't exist in 2001, when the last redistricting happened, and organizing through email and the web was not as well understood.

But it's too early to worry about so-called good government advocates spoiling your gerrymander. The U.S. Census data that these groups will use won't start coming out until February at the earliest, and because rules on redistricting vary from state to state, groups in different regions won't be able to use the same strategies to jam their public input into otherwise well-oiled political machinery. So while there are groups trying to come up with reasonable district plans, and even a competition among Virginia college students organized by professors at Christopher Newport University and George Mason University to come up with the best districts for that state, it's not immediately clear how many of their opinions politicians will actually have to tolerate.

Groups like the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law and George Mason University are disseminating information about how the redistricting process works, and tools to draw better maps. But so long as people ignore their work, fail to organize effectively around drawing districts that allow communities to elect truly representative public officials, and never quite figure out how to apply leverage on the bodies responsible for drawing the lines, everything should be fine.