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Wasilla's Up with Alaska's Redistricting Process?

BY Nick Judd | Monday, January 24 2011

This is Portage Glacier near Whittier, Alaska. It has nothing at all to do with the redistricting process in that state. Photo: Alaskan Dude / flickr

Alaska has joined the ranks of states trying to use the web to make its redistricting process more transparent and open, two Alaskan publications announced over the weekend.

The site, AKredistricting.org, is modern but pretty bare-bones for now. It points to some of the data files necessary to make maps of Alaska, as well as the criteria for well-drawn legislative districts; information about the redistricting board's membership and mandate; a calendar; and a slideshow of some Alaskan terrain that is dramatic but irrelevant because, sadly, mountains where noone lives are not pertinent to the redistricting process.

While sparse, this site is one indicator that states are at least vaguely hip to using the Internet to make redistricting — a decennial process that is widely regarded as a boil on the face of American democracy because it is historically dominated in many states by political self-interest and petty squabbling — a more open, inclusive, and transparent process.

Or, more cynically, at least an indicator that states know they should.

In some states, a citizen push for transparency in redistricting is beginning to have an effect. In California, for instance, a crosspartisan a Citizens Redistricting Commission, created and empowered again through public ballot initiatives, is responsible for redistricting. (It live-streamed its first meetings online.) I've already written about efforts to influence this process in the midwest.

Institutions like the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and activist groups across the country have spent the last few years preparing for the 2011 redistricting process, hosting educational seminars, organizing constituencies and leaning on legislatures to open redistricting.

"In fact where the lines are drawn and how districts are designed has real impact on communities," Erika Wood, a deputy director at Brennan, told me by phone last week.

"Lines are drawn that really draw communities in ways that weaken the voice of the public and how they're represented in government," she later continued.

While the increasingly ubiquitous nature of tools like Google Maps, or even Facebook and Twitter, is making it easier to organize around this issue, formulate informed opinions about the maps that government bodies draw, and propose alternative maps, it's unclear how much this will actually change things.

In Alaska, for instance, redistricting is performed by members of a board appointed by the governor, presiding officer of the state Senate, presiding officer of the state House of Representatives, and chief justice of the state Supreme Court. They are obliged to hold public hearings, but to compel the board to take an action, any qualified voter would have to take the public entity to court.

It's a step forward, of course, that all of that information is now easily accessible on a public website.

"I think it remains to be seen," Wood told me, discussing state redistricting in general, "how much public pressure can come to bear."

The redistricting process begins in earnest in each state as detailed U.S. Census data comes available in that state, according to timetables the states define separately.