Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Commentary: Micah Altman on How Participatory Technology Is Changing Redistricting

BY Micah Altman | Wednesday, February 8 2012

Illustration: Shutterstock

Micah Altman is Senior Research Scientist, and Director of Data Archiving and Acquisition, in the Institute for Quantitative Social Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University; and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution. He is also a principal investigator at the Public Mapping Project.
Here is Altman's response to Nick Judd's article, posted earlier this week, about participatory technology in redistricting.

Nick’s recent article, entitled "In Pursuit of a Tech Answer to Gerrymandering, Good-Government Groups Must Wait Another Ten Years," is full of interesting information on public participation in redistricting -- it makes a real effort to give examples both of how technology has catalyzed new and substantive participation, and of how it has had little apparent effect on the plans actually adopted by legislatures. Also, it provides gratifyingly positive coverage of DistrictBuilder.

It's a good article, even if its titular conclusion, that we'll have to wait another 10 years for any of this to matter, is wrong.

Nick's article begins with "advocates [of participative technology] were in for a lot of bad news". Not exactly. Participation is not binary -- it's true that full participation in redistricting will require institutional change. Technology alone will not force this change, but it will, and has, meaningfully increased participation.

What social scientists know, generally, is that participation takes many forms, and that it falls along a continuum. And as Michael McDonald and I have written elsewhere ("Technology for Public Participation in Redistricting"), public engagement with redistricting falls along a continuum: "At one end of the spectrum are receptive interest and a willingness to learn about the redistricting process. Although far from active participation, increasing interest is important because, currently, members of the U.S. public typically know little about redistricting. Farther along the participatory spectrum, active engagement can involve information seeking; and progress to active commentary on both the redistricting process and specific redistricting proposals. Farther still along the participatory spectrum are local commission-based redistricting institutions that incorporate public input extensively into the creation of boundaries."

Near the conclusion, Nick's articles states "This, in short, was not the year that technology and citizen input democratized redistricting." This is true, but few, if any, serious academics or reformers expected it would. What we hoped, instead, was that technology would offer a qualitatively different level of engagement in the redistricting process, and would produce a rich set of real alternatives that could be used by the public, the media, and the courts as a yardstick with which to compare the political plans that would inevitably be produced by the legislatures.

In this way, participative technology has succeeded beyond our expectations. The number of legally viable, publicly submitted plans has grown by a factor of a hundred since the last decade. These plans demonstrate a qualitative difference in public participation, and have produced many examples of better ways of redistricting.

Although the legislatures have dropped the ball (or, more accurately, turned their backs on the people-formerly-known-as-the-audience), it will not take another decade to see real political impact from this participation. Many redistricting plans will be litigated, and courts are clearly taking note both of the process and of the particular plans produced by the public. Furthermore, the redistricting process is just starting up in other countries, like Canada, and participative technology is going to play an increasingly important role internationally.

Redistricting has not been democratized, but it appears that in many states, the role of the public in redistricting is being transformed -- from passively complaining about the results after the fact, to actively engaging during the process. We hope that the public dialogue about redistricting will lead to future reform, including more opportunities for public involvement. The results have been that in substantial numbers 'real' people are, for the first time, creating legally viable, (and better) political districts. Regardless of what the legislature does, this is good for democracy.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.

GO

tuesday >

Ruck.us Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like Democracy.com

Ruck.us launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new Ruck.us is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and Democracy.com. And strangely enough, Ruck.us seems to want its early users to ask Democracy.com for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.

GO

monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.

GO

The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.

GO

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

More