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Redistricting and Gerrymandering: Can the Internet Help?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, October 29 2009

Gerrymandering has long been one of the ugly little secrets of American politics, and absolutely one of the arenas where the role of technology has been to make politics worse, not better. Every ten years, after a new census is completed, state legislatures redraw district lines, using powerful computers that essentially enable them to pick their voters before the voters ever have a chance to pick them. Wonder why 94% to 98% of incumbent Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are have been re-elected every cycle since 1996? Or why so few House seats--generally only one-in-ten--are considered up for grabs each cycle? This has long been one of those problems mostly of interest to academics and good government groups, and while everyone wrings their hands about how the resulting lack of electoral competition is bad for democracy, fosters polarization and entrenches corruption, so far no one has figured out how to make ending gerrymandering into a more popular cause.

In internet terms, gerrymandering is a classic example of where the middlemen are still in charge, sitting on an artificial chokepoint between voters and government and charging huge rents for their services. (Ballot access is another example.) It's a problem calling out for transparency and disintermediation.

Enter, a new site built by Avencia, a firm that specializes in web-based geographic analysis, visualization and modeling applications. The site offers an intriguing way of breaking down the barrier to public engagement on this issue, and, if it manages to draw more support, could actually change the game by showing citizens how easy it is to draw fair political boundaries, and how corrupt the process is now.

As Jeremy Heffner, one of Avencia's developers puts it,
"Redistricting the Nation allows the public to:

* Enter their address (nation-wide) and view the “shape” of their federal, state, and local election districts.
* Learn who is in charge of drawing the boundaries of their election districts (e.g., independent commissions or elected representatives).
* Compare the “compactness” scores of their election district to other, similar districts (less compact and unusually shaped districts are more likely to be gerrymandered).
* Draw new district boundaries on a map and generate compactness scores for the new district."

Those are good first steps. But Avencia is calling for a more robust intervention in a white paper on 2010 redistricting:

A Web 2.0 approach to redistricting would enable citizens to work with real data in a user-friendly, game-like interface. Web-based tools could make it possible for citizens and community groups to create their own redistricting plans, share those plans with others, assess the fairness of plans, vote on their favorite plans, and submit the best plans to their local and state redistricting authorities or legislatures. Above all, however, web-based redistricting can make the process engaging and interactive, involving citizens in what should be a key democratic process.

I would add only one thing to this positive vision. We also need to make it as easy for citizens to understand the underlying voter-geographic data as it is now for political mapmakers working in the backrooms of state capitals all over the country.

One final note: This is the first I've heard about Avencia and their project. I'm going to try to learn more about the people behind it and report back soon.