When you approach the polls this November to choose the members of Congress you’d like to see elected or re-elected, you will likely have put in some time prior to the election studying up on how your candidates compare to your views. It’s worth noting that there are now websites created just for that reason, such as VoteSmart.org’s “VoteEasy” platform. But it may not have crossed your mind that elected representatives and their political allies in the state legislatures will have pre-selected their voters by creating partisan electoral districts through the manipulation of maps.
This is known as the concept of gerrymandering, and while it has long existed in our country, it is now easier than ever for redistricting authorities to maintain their power by interfering with public participation. In fact, some say the drawing of these maps has been one of the least transparent processes in governance!
While this sounds unsettling, an innovation created in 2011 may offer hope for improving the redistricting process and ultimately shift the power balance. The Public Mapping Project has developed DistrictBuilder, an open source software redistricting application designed to give citizens accessible, transparent, and easy-to-use on-line mapping tools to draw the boundaries of their communities and to generate redistricting plans for their state and localities.
After taking a look at the DistrictBuilder software, it really does sound straightforward. DistrictBuilder lets users evaluate if any given map complies with federal and advocacy-oriented standards. Therefore, maps created with DistrictBuilder are legal and may be submitted to a given state's authority. The software does the background work of pulling data from many sources, including the 2010 U.S. Census (age, race, population and ethnicity), election data and map data, including how the current districts are drawn.
DistrictBuilder was developed by Azavea with collaboration from Michael P. McDonald, associate professor at George Mason University and director of the U.S. Elections Project, and Micah Altman, senior research scientist at Harvard University Institute for Quantitative Social Science. The online app has already made a difference. Altman reports that users are benefitting from the software’s flexibility to accommodate a lot of information and the fact that specialized technical capabilities are not required, making redistricting accessible to a wide audience. In fact, 2011 saw a notable increase in participation -- the number of plans produced and shared by citizens was about 100 times the number of plans submitted by the public in the last round of redistricting 10 years ago!
Recently, “redistricting competitions” have been held across the country with DistrictBuilder as the main tool helping in the process. The New York Redistricting Project hosted a competition to redistrict New York’s congressional and state legislative districts. The competition challenged teams of students representing New York colleges and universities to design New York State’s congressional and state legislative districts. The mission of the competition was to increase public awareness about redistricting in New York and to facilitate hands-on experience with DistrictBuilder.
In Virginia, the maps became alternatives for legislatures to consider and use as a guide. Students submitted maps that enhanced minority representation and elements in the plan that would be officially adopted. (Take a look at publicmapping.org for further information on redistricting competitions held in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, and other states).
On the whole, the public has never had an opportunity to be as involved in redistricting as they are now at this moment in time. As a result of the competitions and the user-friendly software, many more citizens are now aware of the issue and ready to take prior dissatisfaction with our Congress and it channel into more civic engagement.
[this post was inspired by the O’Reilly Radar]