Technology Gives Citizens a Say in Redistricting

By Danielle Kurtzleben

U.S. News and World Report

March 9, 2011

This week, the Census Bureau sent redistricting data to California, making it 27 states which have received their 2010 census data, detailed demographic portraits of their populations. States use this statistical trove, including racial and voting age data, to redraw congressional and state legislative districts.

Redistricting has been the esoteric province of partisan operatives seemingly since the early 19th century when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a law creating districts so contorted that opponents said one resembled a salamander or "Gerrymander." But technological advances are giving ordinary citizens a greater voice in this decennial process.

It is increasingly easy, for example, for constituents to obtain the census and state electoral data used in redrawing the maps. In 2000, 26 states made data publicly available, up from 22 in 1990, and the number of states accepting public map submissions also grew to 31 from 24 in 1990. It is too early to tell how many more states will follow suit this year. But now, numerous outside groups have access to the data and are able to disseminate it independently. In addition, the advent and easy accessibility of digital data and mapping software have helped simplify the art of drawing districts.

"Citizens can definitely be more active in the redistricting process than ever before," says J. Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization which works on campaign finance and elections. Florida, for example, is launching a website allowing citizens to submit redistricting plans. Many other states also have sites providing detailed information, including proposed maps. Some organizations outside of government have also created online mapping tools. In Iowa, for example, the Des Moines Register website allows users to draw their own maps. And the Public Mapping Project, a nonpartisan good governance group, provides mapping tools to other organizations around the country and may partner with some states. Such efforts, Hebert says, can help citizens to engage in the political process, such as in public redistricting hearings.

Reform advocates say technology is democratizing a process that has often led to partisan gerrymandering and incumbent protection. "Every 10 years, [our representatives] get to vote for us," says Micah Altman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a principal investigator on the Public Mapping Project. "On the margins, this can have a significant effect on a number of seats and on policy."

Still, it is debatable whether citizens' power in redrawing districts has advanced proportionally with technology. Aside from computer access, a citizen hoping to influence redistricting may need significant knowledge and clout. "It's far more complicated than people realize," says Tim Storey, senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization supporting state lawmakers. "A lot of these [citizen-drawn] plans . . . flat-out on their face are not compliant with the law." Indeed, individual state redistricting laws can be difficult. For example, 16 states covered or partially covered by the Voting Rights Act must get federal certification that their plans will not adversely affect minority voting communities. Some states also require geographically "compact" districts. "Legislators drawing these maps have spent months, years trying to understand the process," adds Storey.

According to Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College in Minnesota, knowledge does not necessarily equal power. Instead, he says, being in the right political network is also key. "Then, with technical analysis, you can perhaps have an impact," he says. But Altman says that citizens can effectively voice their concerns on a community level, "saying to legislators, 'Here's my neighborhood. Please don't split it up.'" In short, the wide availability of data can help communities with common interests ensure that their voices are heard as one, at least for 10 more years.

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