Political Redistricting With Transparency

August 22, 2011

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Directions Magazine (DM): The election of a new Congress and the decennial Census redistricting has already been a topic of much discussion among politicians. We know that the redistricting process has leveraged GIS in the past. Please explain some of the guiding principles of the Public Mapping Project and how it might influence redistricting in 2011.

Robert Cheetham (RC): The decennial redistricting process that takes place in the United States after each census has long been fraught with controversy. We derive the term “gerrymandering” from the 1812 political cartoon that satirized the Massachusetts state senate districts developed by Governor Elbridge Gerry’s party to favor its candidates over the Federalists. The Essex County district was likened to a salamander and the word gerrymander was a blend of that word with Governor Gerry’s name.

While some states have adopted independent, non-partisan redistricting commissions, most still enable incumbent legislators to draw their own districts. Given the opportunity, legislators select their voters, rather the other way around. When legislators can pick the composition of their electorate, it becomes far more difficult to hold them accountable. And the GIS software that we all use has made that process easier. Increasingly capable desktop software tools enable more crafted districts that do little to preserve communities of interest or promote effective public representation. All too often, redistricting authorities maintain their power by obstructing public participation.

The Public Mapping Project aims to change this by encouraging a more transparent process that makes it possible for the public to draw the boundaries of their communities and to generate redistricting plans for their state and localities, and do so from within a Web browser. Led by Professors Michael McDonald and Micah Altman, the Public Mapping Project has developed DistrictBuilder, an open source redistricting software application designed to give the public transparent and easy-to-use online mapping tools. In addition to software, the Public Mapping Project has developed data sets for each state, training materials, and performs outreach to educate the public about the redistricting process.

How will this impact the process? When redistricting authorities are interested in soliciting public input, DistrictBuilder can provide them with a low cost, transparent mechanism to gather that input. And where redistricting authorities are not responsive to input from the public, plans drawn by the public may be used as a yardstick against which to compare a redistricting authority’s plan. Finally, when the regular redistricting process breaks down and the courts must step in, judges will have a greater menu of options to consider.

DM: How do you envision the public taking an active role in shaping the redistricting process through the Public Mapping Project? Do you think this will be a unique opportunity to “crowdsource” the options presented to politicians for new district boundaries?

RC: The software is very much designed to support a crowdsourced approach to developing state and local district plans. We see the software being used in at least four ways: 1) by redistricting authorities interested in soliciting public input; 2) in classrooms as a teaching tool for civics and political science; 3) by citizen advocacy organizations to engage the public in developing alternative plans; and 4) as a tool to run local and state competitions whereby people can compete to generate the best plans. The particular form this will take will likely vary from state to state. For example, in Virginia, the Christopher Newport University Education Foundation worked with the Public Mapping Project to host a state-wide competition amongst college students. The Midwest Democracy Network has done implementations for Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana. Other implementations have been done for the Arizona Competitive Districts Coalition and Contra Costa County, California. In Philadelphia, which has a couple of the most convoluted city council districts in the United States, Azavea is working with several media partners to support FixPhillyDistricts.com, a competition to create a better city council district plan for the city. The contest will run through August 28 and is open to anyone.

DM: Have any major news agencies, PACs or non-profit groups requested access to the software and can you tell us who they are?

RC: The software development is guided by principles of transparency and public participation in redistricting articulated by an advisory board of experts and representatives of good government groups. We have implemented these principals by making the software source code, instructions on how to install and use it, and AMI files to run it on Amazon Web Services EC2 freely available to anyone, no questions asked, so we don’t always know who is using it. But the Public Mapping Project worked with this advisory board in developing the specifications, including representatives from Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Midwest Democracy Network and others.

The project has been supported by funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, The Joyce Foundation, and the Christopher Newport University Educational Foundation. The project has also had inquiries from a broad range of university faculty interested in using DistrictBuilder as a teaching tool in their classes. In Philadelphia, Azavea’s partners have included many of the major news media organizations: WHYY Newsworks, Philadelphia Daily News, Philly.com and the University of Pennsylvania Project for Civic Engagement.

DM: You talk a lot about transparency of the redistricting process. Are your expectations that this will force politicians to bring gerrymandering out of the backroom and into the open? What kind of feedback have you received so far from politicians or the general public?

RC: We have had a tremendous amount of support from educators, foundations and people interested in promoting a more transparent redistricting process. That said, we are not so naïve as to think that this software is going to have a dramatic impact on the redistricting process in the United States. Most legislatures will continue to carry out the process behind closed doors. But we believe that by making available a free and open alternative that can be used by the public, we can help to both raise awareness of the issue and increase the amount of public engagement and discourse on the topic.

As a GIS community, I think we need to recognize that the software that many of us use to make the world a better place is also used for purposes that disenfranchise voters and damage both civil society and civic discourse. While I do not think it is the sole cause, the smaller number of competitive districts at both the congressional and state levels has certainly contributed to an increasingly polarized political environment. Better districts are not the only answer, but we hope that by enabling the public to be more engaged with the process we can help tip the scales a bit more back in the direction of the public.

DM: Within the last 10 years, the advent of Google Maps may have changed people’s perceptions about using mapping programs themselves. What do you anticipate this time around among both the public and politicians?

RC: The politicians have never lacked awareness about the importance of the redistricting process, but I think with new technology - from wall-mounted touch screens in the last election cycle to the explosion in the number of maps in online newspapers – an increasing array of information is being expressed geographically. In the past two years, we have seen two hard-fought citizen initiatives in California to create and protect an independent redistricting commission as well as similar efforts in other states. A documentary released last fall, Gerrymandering: The Movie, has also raised awareness of the topic. I think the public is increasingly accustomed to using sophisticated online mapping systems, and systems like Google Maps, Bing Maps, OpenStreetMap and ArcGIS Online have all contributed to this. That said, while a digital map is the obvious way to draw a district plan, it is a rather more complex activity than retrieving driving directions. There are many factors to consider and the mapping process is usually an iterative one, so it takes a bit of motivation to complete one. But I think that there is a good portion of the public that has both the interest and motivation to do this.

DM: With this “Next Wave of Open Redistricting” will oddly shaped districts, discontiguous districts and other geographic absurdities be a thing of the past and how do you see this playing out? How much will the principles of “open government” or “public participation GIS” impact the process this year?

RC: An open software product, on its own, will not have a major impact on the shape of the districts. However, I would argue that GIS technology in the hands of incumbent politicians has contributed to an increase in their ability to hold on to power and limit the competitiveness of their districts. I believe that the ability for the public to become directly engaged in the redistricting process has the potential to both level the playing field and increase the awareness of the challenges we face with closed redistricting systems. In other words, powerful desktop GIS technology has made a bad problem worse, and projects like DistrictBuilder can potentially help to mitigate this. Public competitions conducted in Ohio, Virginia, Arizona and Philadelphia have already had a significant impact on the public dialogue around redistricting in those locations. Does this mean that gerrymandering will become a thing of the past? No. As long as the process of drawing district lines is in the hands of legislators, they will use the process to their advantage. Without a doubt, redistricting is a big, hard, complex problem, but that also makes it worth tackling.

In terms of geographic absurdities, I would note that while Azavea has worked to draw attention to some of the craziest districts in the U.S. through projects like RedistrictingTheNation.com, a convoluted shape is not necessarily a sign of a bad district. Sometimes those shapes can arise through an attempt to match a municipal boundary or in response to a legitimate public policy concern, such as when districts are crafted to meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Compactness is just one measure of a good district and needs to be considered alongside contiguity, competitiveness and preservation of communities of interest.

Finally, I think cities like Boston, Seattle, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, along with efforts such as Civic Commons and Code for America, are demonstrating how engaging the public through effective use of technology can both improve the way in which governments are operated and change the manner in which we, the public, relate to them. I think projects like DistrictBuilder move us closer to Tim O’Reilly’s concept of “government as a platform.”


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