It is possible to run a less partisan process,
—Dr. Micah Altman, scientist at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science
A crucial political season is here. Not the 2012 presidential campaign, but 2011 redistricting. The Constitution requires that the U.S. Census Bureau must try to count every person in the country, once every decade since 1790. What it learns can have as big an effect on public policy and leadership as all the PAC money, lobbying, debate and campaigning in the world. The boundaries of legislative districts are drawn based on census figures and electoral information.
This decade’s redistricting process has something new. Because of advances in technology, citizens can sift through and analyze electoral and population data in a way they never could before.
Philadelphia-based company Azavea and The Public Mapping Project developed District Builder, a Web-based redistricting application. They and other partners are holding a public contest in Philadelphia to propose new districts, called Fix Philly Districts. The City Council must vote on the proposals by Sept. 9 or forego their paychecks.
Once the census data is in on April 10, it’s time to redraw legislative districts. In America, the process is political, with state legislatures mostly in charge of dividing the districts. Legislatures decide on new districts and usually present the proposed boundaries as a bill. The motivation for the party in power to favor itself is tremendous.
"Our Voting Rights Project is most concerned to make sure that peoples' voting is not diluted based on race," said Nancy Abudu, senior staff counsel for the ACLU. She said her organization is nonpartisan, and just wants to make sure people get to choose the candidates they want to choose.
The complex process has often been done in secret. It can be and has been used to disenfranchise minority groups, as it is possible to draw a district map so that a majority group almost always outvotes minority voters. A cure for that has been to create minority majority districts. Yet the argument against that is that it increases partisan polarization over time, with candidates not needing to win voters outside their bases.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 forbids discrimination in district design, and still requires certain states to clear their plans with the Department of Justice or with federal courts. States are federally required not to discriminate against minorities, and to try to group people with common interests together, such as urban dwellers or farmers.
“District Builder is available to anyone who wants to build a district,” said Dr. Micah Altman, one of the scholars who worked with Azavea to develop it. He is a senior research scientist at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Dr. Michael P. McDonald, associate professor at George Mason University was his partner on the project.
“It is possible to run a less partisan process,” said Altman. “In Canada, Australia, and Britain, redistricting is much less partisan, much more transparent.”
"I think what's most useful for transparency is for people to get to see the maps legislators are considering before they vote on them," said Abudu.
The purpose of open source redistricting software like District Builder is to make the process transparent and participatory, Altman said. A number of states have been trying it this year. “A wrong idea some people have is that you just get a computer to design a district, but the proposals to have a computer do it based on a map, do not necessarily capture a community.” It needs human judgment.
Because of software like District Builder, it is possible for ordinary people without armies of mapping experts and statisticians to design maps that meet the legal criteria for districts. Multiple companies and nonprofit groups, such as the Midwest Democracy Network, have created software to help with redistricting.
People want to take part, as the Philadelphia contest drew lots of entries and media coverage. According to Altman, a contest in Virginia drew hundreds of submissions and generated a lot of media attention, and two of the plans from the contest were introduced to the state legislature.
By making the process more transparent, the legislators and the governor felt like they had to engage, Altman said.
“I think these will show some of the possibilities of what people want and what can be done,” said Altman.