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Citizen-Sourced Redistricting Efforts Are Reaching the Finish Line

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, September 8 2011

Philadelphia's City Council is expected to propose on Thursday a new set of political borders to last the city through the next ten years — and the results will be a barometer of success for a group of do-it-yourself political activists hoping to use technology to impose themselves on the process.

Cities, counties and states nationwide are updating their borders to reflect changes in population shown by the decennial U.S. Census, a typically closed-door process that gives politicians the chance to engage in practices like agreeing on districts where it's easier for incumbents to win or skulduggery like slicing a white political aspirant's house into a district that is predominantly people of color, and hoping that race politics creates some turmoil.

The council in Philadelphia seemed to some outsiders to be doing business as usual, behind closed doors and without public input — spurring a partnership among the mapping software firm Azavea, local media partners, and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement to host their own, parallel process. The process, a public mapmaking competition called Fix Philly Districts, empowered anyone who wanted to participate to build maps using freely available software.

This contest is a microcosm for a phenomenon happening across the country. In Virginia, for example, advocates held a similar mapping competition using the same software, District Builder, which Azavea built in conjunction with the Public Mapping Project. Another contest in Ohio will have its winners announced next Tuesday. Contest organizers expect later this month to put their maps in front of the Ohio legislative committee responsible for redistricting .

After weeks of advocacy, Azavea and its partners will know tomorrow if they have gotten through to Philadelphia lawmakers. Already, there have been some victories — the contest generated 1,200 plans, 72 of which were legally valid, according to Azavea. Earlier this week, seven winning plans made it in front of the City Council during a public meeting on redistricting. Part of the point of the whole exercize was to create enough of a hullabaloo that the council would have to host more than one public meeting at all; given that a packed kickoff meeting for the contest, which boasts a $500 grand prize, drew the attendence of two council members, Azavea president Robert Cheetham takes some portion of credit for making multiple council meetings come to pass.

But it's unclear if the council has taken any of this to heart. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports the proposed new map may not be much better than the one that's already there:

City Council will introduce a bill Thursday to redraw the city's political districts, but the boundaries of the new map are going to be "ugly," Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez said Tuesday.

"We're going to have something. It's not going to be the ideal, consensus map," she said. "I'm not happy with where we are. . . . It still needs a lot of work."

Sánchez, whose twisted, gerrymandered Seventh District has been at the center of the fight to redraw the political map, spoke Tuesday night after the third hearing on redistricting.

Friday is expected to host the opening salvoes in official deliberations over a proposed map. If the council doesn't pass a new map by Sept. 22, its members must wait until they do before they get their paychecks.

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