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In Pursuit of a Tech Answer to Gerrymandering, Good-Government Groups Must Wait Another Ten Years

BY Nick Judd | Monday, February 6 2012

This 1812 cartoon from the Boston Gazette is widely credited as the origin of the term "Gerrymander." Source: Wikimedia Commons

This year, advocates for more public inclusion in the redistricting process put an idea to the test: That open-source software and voter outreach efforts could make people more aware and more involved. The idea here was that new tools would make maps easier to draw and even easier to understand, creating, at worst, evidence that lawmakers involved in redistricting were not drawing the right maps, and, at best, alternatives.

Those advocates were in for a lot of bad news. In at least four states, Texas, Minnesota, Ohio and Arizona, the redistricting process is still ongoing partly thanks to court intervention of one type or another. (News broke Monday that Texas may be in for a compromise deal allowing it to keep to its timeline for primaries.) Partisan or politically charged arguments slowed the process down in several more. And in states where advocates at groups like Common Cause or the League of Women Voters tried grassroots mapmaking projects, it appears that they will be largely ignored. Meanwhile, most people remain barely aware of redistricting if they're aware of it at all.

"The public is not paying attention to it," said Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University and co-director, with Micah Altman, of the Public Mapping Project. "But the insiders know that this is a very important game that's being played. So they do try to bring all their resources to bear to it and work the refs as much as they can, because if they do, they know they will save themselves millions of dollars over the course of the decade."

Ahead of this year's redistricting efforts, the Public Mapping Project released District Builder, an open-source mapping platform built specifically for drawing district maps. District Builder became the key in a multi-state strategy for good government advocates, one focus of which was a series of mapping contests held in states around the country. The format, and the sponsoring organization, varied from state to state. But the basic premise was this: After a series of public meetings about redistricting and training on the software, some group, either from the public or from a cohort of students at universities, would take a whack at producing their own renditions of how their state's communities should be drawn up. The resulting maps would be judged by a panel of experts, and the winners would be submitted to the state legislature.

Mike Dean works for Common Cause Minnesota, which sought to insert citizen voices into what is usually a closed-door, internecine squabble between politicians.

Minnesota's legislative map also wound up before a court-appointed panel after proposed maps from both parties were deemed too partisan.

"One positive thing that happened in Minnesota, and I don't know that this has ever happened before, is that ... citizen maps could be given to the court for consideration," Dean told me. "The court wound up getting ten different maps."

A League of Women Voters-sponsored initiative, Draw The Line, built this map to propose Minnesota's next congressional districts, based on citizen input:

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But the GOP and Democrat-Farmer-Labor party maps look like this and this:
View Larger Map

View Larger Map

The way these different maps are drawn change the level of competitiveness in each district, based on party affiliation in each, among other things.

That was the idea, anyway; Dean says that they could only submit maps before the court panel decided on what criteria it would evaluate what it saw.

"For decades it's always been the court and the legislature that had this power and what we saw for the first time that the public had the tools and the resources to draw these maps," he said. "You saw the court and the legislature push back on that."

A District Builder-powered contest asking citizens to compete for the prize of "best" district map drew nearly 200 people and almost 500 maps, Dean said — although, in the final analysis, the new map will be drawn based largely on what the two major parties have to say.

It's a tune that might sound familiar. McDonald, who has also submitted an affidavit in an Ohio court dispute over redistricting and is an expert witness or otherwise involved in various other redistricting suits, says the Public Mapping Project was involved in such contests in Ohio, Virginia, Philadelphia, Penn., and in New York, where winners were announced last month. The state Legislature here has unveiled a draft map that turns out to be just as bad, by most accounts, as the maps that came before it, if not even worse.

Independent of that project, Florida lawmakers made a similar do-it-yourself redistricting tool available to residents there, but didn't offer draft maps for public review during the public hearing process. Florida's redistricting process is now nearing a conclusion, too — one that will be written behind closed doors. Even the District of Columbia's Greater Greater Washington blog featured a Google Maps mashup that allowed people to experiment with their own district-drawing. In the city of Philadelphia, Azavea's home turf, one such contest became political leverage that helped to shame the City Council there into hosting public hearings on the subject of redistricting.

This, in short, was not the year that technology and citizen input democratized redistricting. But it is a year in which a fairly ubiquitous toolkit made its way around the country and, in some cases, particularly local ones, played a role in actual victories for opponents of gerrymandering, advocates say. And in a process where reform can happen only once every ten years, that has advocates feeling optimistic: After all, they've got a decade to prepare for next time.

"The first part of even identifying this problem is identifying what the problem is," McDonald told me, "and up until this point we haven't had the evaluative tools to really call a gerrymander a gerrymander."

A lead organizer of the New York contest, Costas Panagopoulos, told me he didn't expect the maps that won that contest — which was largely targeted to students but came with public events in several towns throughout the state — to be adopted.

"It doesn't help that we only really have discussions about this every ten years when it comes around," Panagopoulos, an assistant professor of political science and director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy and the graduate program in elections and campaign management at Fordham University, told me in early January, just before the contests' winners were announced. "But when I think about how to build a culture of citizen input in the redistricting process, [it's] something that will evolve over time and is likely to take several redistricting cycles to achieve."