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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.