Opening the Redistricting Process to Citizens

If you build it, will they come?

If one questioned the general public about redistricting, as a Pew survey did in 2006, one would find only modest awareness of the topic and generally negative opinions of the current process. This comes as no surprise to those who observed the 2010 elections and follow trends in open government and transparency. Citizens are less inclined to trust their elected officials than ever before, and the redistricting exercises this spring may provide further grounds for discontent.

A number of groups have sought to address the lack of public engagement in elections and promote transparency in redistricting. Legislation to transfer the task of redistricting to a board of appointed citizens was proposed in several states and adopted by Arizona and California. But does a transfer of responsibility for redistricting, with its inherent power, satisfy the public’s growing expectations for transparency and inclusion? A number of interest groups propose citizens be granted access to the same data and redistricting tools legislators would use. Texas, Georgia, and Florida did this in 2000 and plan to again, at no small expense. To what effect?

If a redistricting tool were built that allowed citizens to construct plans, will redistricting bodies

  • Have the ability or capacity to review plans and public comments made electronically?
  • Be able to balance the particular laws for their states as well as and Sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, with what the public sees as a logical plan?
  • Be able to determine or measure the public value of providing tools that engage citizens and provide transparency?

Can GIS technology help states engage their constituents in the redistricting process while accounting for its complex regulations and rules?

Richard Leadbeater

About Richard Leadbeater

Richard Leadbeater leads the industry team for state government solutions at Esri and he has over 26 years of experience implementing GIS in the state and local government market. He is active in trade associations that serve public officials, regularly presenting on the use of GIS for policy development and in citizen accountability and transparency applications.
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4 Comments

  1. Justin Levitt says:

    Technology can and should help redistricting bodies engage constituents, with a little preparation and some realistic expectations. As with any tool, you need good instructions to ensure proper use; citizens should not be led to believe that tools will automate the process or draw regular polygons that comply with the law. But if a tool provides the necessary data, and a clear explanation of the jurisdiction’s legal requirements, highly organized citizens’ groups can and will produce compliant maps in the public interest, and explain their choices along the way. Software might further assist the process by flagging potential violations of more sophisticated laws like the Voting Rights Act, identifying focal points, and improving public education at the same time.

    In many jurisdictions, relatively few public users will have the wherewithal to produce adequate full plans. But a redistricting tool need not have uniformly sophisticated modes – and redistricting bodies should not discount the broad benefits of more basic engagement. Too often, district lines unnecessarily split cohesive communities, fracturing citizens’ ability to find a legislator who truly represents them, and contributing to the perception that private or partisan interests have outweighed public needs. A different vision would invite citizens to articulate and delineate their own communities, using the most straightforward tools to better inform decision makers about a plan’s basic building blocks, even without placing the piece in the plan as a whole. Some of these submissions won’t be able to be accommodated. But asking for input and incorporating responses where possible will let citizens see that they are better served at the end of the day.

  2. Jeffrey M. Wice says:

    Redistricting authorities can have the ability to review plans and public comments if they incorporate the proper technology into their redistricting operations. Florida has already taken steps to provide for public input and map suggestion. Several academic institutions are sponsoring programs to permit the public to develop redistricting plans. A student competition is underway in Virginia where superior plans will be judged by experts and considered by a gubernatorial commission for further submission to the State House and Senate.

    This will require advance planning, research, and budgeting. The post-2010 redistricting cycle promises to be the most watched since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1961 Baker vs. Carr decision. Demands from civic and civil rights groups for transparency, public participation, website information, and cloud computing has never been greater. New technologies will make it possible to reach a public never before involved or even aware of redistricting. Courts may even look to see what kind of public participation went into a plan before it was approved. It’s up to each state to decide what to do, but it’s in their best interest to make a great deal of information available to the public in a user friendly and open manner.

    States must always comply with the Voting Rights Act. The Department of Justice, when reviewing Section 5 submissions, will look to see what kinds of plans and recommendations were submitted by the public. While a state is by no means required to follow every public suggestion, they will weigh into the review process.

    Those who draw district lines should encourage as much public participation as possible. User-friendly tools should be provided via websites or public access terminals, where feasible. It’s essential for redistricting authorities to establish pre-determined objective criteria before developing or reviewing plans. Objective criteria guiding population deviation, communities of interest, compactness, contiguity, and the division of jurisdictional boundaries are essential to defend any redistricting plan.

  3. Matt Peters says:

    The current technolgy definitely makes the idea of citizen involvement not only possible, but relatively easy. That being said though, the larger issue seems to be to what extent will public input influence the process. The tools may be built, the public may respond, but how will their ideas be incorporated? It seems for every dollar spent in technology we must spend five in building an environment of collaboration and trust among all interested parties

  4. Following the 1990 and 2000 Censuses, the Sacramento City Council implemented a community-based participatory process for redistricting. The City of Sacramento is unique in that it has a long established history of actively facilitating citizen engagement in redistricting. Following both the 1990 and 2000 Census, the City of Sacramento Council developed a comprehensive process for individuals and parties in the community to engage in Redistricting with the City Council. It was an inclusionary process that included extensive community outreach, Council participation, instruction, and the development of tools and data to aid in the redistricting process. The City will implement a similar ‘process’ approach this year that will include improved tools and access.

    In 2001 GIS Software tools and data that were focused on community users and were created to help interested parties understand, develop, comment and submit district proposals to the Council for consideration. Specific community based information such as neighborhoods and community areas were provided along with the Census redistricting data in a simple to use GIS tool provided free to the public. Individuals as well as broad coalitions of community groups submitted proposals for consideration by the Council. It was an open and active process that brought many groups together that I believe otherwise would not have come together. Ultimately individuals in the community as well as Council were better informed.

    The redistricting process that Sacramento City has adopted provides a better method for community members to understand the challenges of redistricting as well providing an open process to have their ideas and concerns formally considered. The ‘whole process’ is the real key to success. Though the software and data are essential if the organization is not behind the complete process the tool is just that a tool… a hammer with no nail, wood, or house to build.