February 3, 2011 By Josh Goodman
Reprint courtesy of Stateline.org
Dave Bradlee was a software developer for Microsoft for 20 years. He also has a fanatical interest in politics and maps. Not long ago, with the states’ once-a-decade task of re-drawing political district lines approaching, there was a question that Bradlee couldn’t get out of his head: “Wouldn’t it be cool if people could actually draw districts themselves?”
On his own time, he built an online mapping tool he calls “Dave’s Redistricting App.” It’s free and anyone can use it. You choose a state, decide how many districts to slice it into, and then click away, coloring the map into lots of tiny pieces. As you draw your own Congressional or state legislative districts, the app spits out Census data on each one’s population and racial composition. With a little persistence, anyone can produce his own redistricting plan.
Bradlee quickly discovered he wasn’t alone in his passions. Since the app went live in 2009, hundreds of people have used it to draw political maps -- the site is now live for every state but Alaska. Some of the user-created maps were jokes: One person striped the state of New York with districts that all stretched from Buffalo to the Big Apple. But Bradlee says most of the maps created with his app represent serious efforts by well-intentioned citizens to engage in the redistricting process in ways they’ve never been able to before.
As states begin redistricting in the next few months, Web tools like Bradlee’s will provide a new way for the public to try and influence the outcome. Ten years ago, during the last round of redistricting, the Internet was still relatively new. Google Maps didn’t exist, let alone all the interactive and social tools that are so ubiquitous online today, such as YouTube and Facebook.
This time, it will be different. In addition to Bradlee’s app, there are a number of other efforts under way to give citizens more mapping power. Some of them are officially sanctioned, such as a pair of online redistricting apps being developed by the Florida Legislature and another in Idaho. Others are coming from outside government, including one that promises to give citizens every bit as much data-drilling power as the systems state legislators and redistricting commissions will use.
Already, reform-minded groups are planning on using these tools to create a shadow redistricting process, intended to provide alternatives to the political gerrymanders that partisan legislatures often produce. In Indiana, for example, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and AARP have come together to sponsor a citizen redistricting commission. The commission, led by two former legislators — one Democrat and one Republican — will conduct hearings around the state and then formulate its own redistricting plan. If the Indiana Legislature draws maps that promote the interest of the majority Republicans, or that protect incumbents, the citizen commission will be ready to go to the public and the media with its alternative.
“The purpose of the commission,” says Julia Vaughn, policy director for the state chapter of Common Cause, “is to birddog the Indiana General Assembly.” Maps drawn through a shadow redistricting process not only could be used or adapted by legislators themselves, but also could be considered by judges in states where the official maps ultimately wind up in court.
With the new technology, there’s no question that there’s more potential than ever for citizens to have a say in a process historically controlled by partisan and self-interested lawmakers. The question is whether the power of do-it-yourself redistricting will actually lead to maps that look any different than those from past decades.
Redistricting for the Masses
Each new round of redistricting, it seems, ushers in a new technological leap. Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a redistricting consulting firm, remembers how in 1981 in Illinois, paper maps were tacked to the wall in the House Speaker’s office, which had a conveniently high ceiling. “We could put the entire city of Chicago on one wall,” Brace says. The line drawers would spend all day drawing their map, then it would take a mainframe computer all night to analyze the demographics of what they had created.
By 1991, lawmakers had personal computers at their disposal. By 2001, those computers and the software on them were dramatically more powerful. Insiders could fiddle with new district lines relentlessly, allowing them to ponder thousands of possibilities that previously would have taken too much time to consider. As the technology progressed, some states set up computers in libraries or state offices where anyone could come and use the same software legislators were using. But relatively few people were willing to travel for miles and then sit down for hours to do it.
Idaho and Florida want to change that. Idaho has purchased an online redistricting tool from Caliper, one of the two best-established vendors of redistricting software. The Web tool will allow the public to draw maps from anywhere with a broadband connection. “We’re hoping to let citizens have input and make sure the people making the decisions have been able to hear from them in a meaningful kind of way,” says Kristin Ford, Idaho’s legislative librarian and redistricting liaison.
In Idaho, the state’s Redistricting Commission will be using a more powerful PC-based version of the software. The public version for use online runs slower and is scaled down. Florida, by contrast, is designing a system where the public can use the exact same tool to redraw lines that legislators themselves are using. In fact, Florida is designing two of these tools.
That’s because a couple of years ago, the Florida House and Senate launched separate redistricting projects. There are some technical differences between the endeavors — for example, the House is using a Microsoft product while the Senate is using open-source software. But the goal is the same with both projects: to design online redistricting tools for use by lawmakers and the public alike. The Florida House already has a test version online. The Senate plans to introduce its beta-test version next week.
The expectation is that some people or interest groups will attempt to draw full Congressional or state legislative maps for all of Florida. But there are more granular uses as well. For example, citizens might use the tool to present lawmakers with maps of neighborhoods that should be kept intact within certain districts. “If we can get an abundance of feedback, almost to the point we’re overwhelmed, we’ve succeeded,” says J. Alex Kelly, staff director of the Florida House Redistricting Committee.
At the state level, the efforts in Idaho and Florida are exceptions, not the rule. Most states are making no further plans to engage the public in 2011 than they did a decade ago.
One reason why is money. Mark Stratton, who works on redistricting for Indiana’s Legislative Services Agency, says that when he was talking with vendors about online redistricting last year, they told him it would cost the state $125,000 to $150,000. But Indiana’s redistricting budget -- for hardware, software and staff -- is only $250,000. While prices have dropped some since then, Stratton says a big effort at online outreach simply wasn’t practical financially.
States have other concerns. Who should provide technical support to citizens who have trouble with these fairly sophisticated applications? How should publicly submitted plans be catalogued and presented to legislators? And will enough of those plans be valid to make the exercise worth it? Redistricting, after all, is a not just a political process but also a very technical one, requiring map makers to consider everything from a district’s compactness to the Supreme Court’s latest interpretation of the Voting Rights Act.
Fred Hejazi thinks states are reluctant to engage the public more because the officials in charge of redistricting don't want to give up control. Hejazi is the CEO of Citygate GIS, the other well-established vendor of redistricting software. His company developed the first prototype for online redistricting. But Hejazi says most state officials involved in redistricting only want to buy PC software, not online versions that would make it easier for the masses to get involved.
“In most states, a redistricting plan is handled the same way as a regular bill, a bill that goes through the legislature,” Hejazi says. “By making this a public process, you’re essentially bypassing the reason there’s a legislative body. We don’t have a direct democracy. We have a representative democracy.”
Citizen Maps in Court
Ultimately, it may not matter that the states themselves are reluctant to give up control over redistricting. That’s because there are people like Dave Bradlee who have made it their mission to give the public tools to make the process more collaborative. Bradlee sees his app as much more than a toy for political and geographic junkies like himself. “This is a tool that helps inform citizens to see what the process is like,” he says. “Ultimately, influencing the people who control the process is a goal.”
Michael McDonald and Micah Altman share that goal. The two scholars at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., are leading an effort known as the Public Mapping Project. The online tool they are developing is expected to be more powerful than Bradlee’s app. It will contain sophisticated features like a statistical test of the compactness of the districts a user has created.
Most importantly, the system McDonald and Altman are developing will be capable of spitting out what are known as “block equivalency files.” These files allow a redistricting plan developed in their system to be imported into other redistricting systems states use, such as the ones sold by Caliper or Citygate. In other words, even in a state that has done nothing on its own to embrace do-it-yourself redistricting, a state legislature or redistricting commission could feasibly enact a map drawn using the Public Mapping Project tool.
That may never happen, of course. Still, at least one state is starting to pay attention to the Public Mapping Project. In Virginia, teams of students and professors from more than a dozen colleges are participating in a competition to draw new congressional and legislative lines using the Public Mapping Project tool. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute will pick the winning maps, which will then be presented to Virginia legislators for their consideration. Ten years ago, without online redistricting, a contest like this one probably would have been prohibitively expensive, requiring dozens of costly software licenses.
Even if citizen plans don't prove popular with legislators, they could find a more receptive audience in court. When state lawmakers fail to draw legal maps, courts have asked scholars such as Columbia University Law Professor Nathaniel Persily to step in to devise a plan. With citizen redistricting taking off this cycle, Persily says that might not be necessary. He has his students drawing district maps using Caliper software and writing legal papers defending them. He doesn’t see this as merely an academic exercise. “For states that fail to craft redistricting plans,” Persily says, “there will be ready-made redistricting.”
If past decades are any guide, court is exactly where many states’ redistricting plans will end up. It’s not a stretch that a court could throw out the map drawn by a legislature if, say, a citizen-drawn map did a better job dividing population evenly between districts or abiding by a state compactness standard. “A court should be able to review anything presented to it as long as it’s verifiable,” says Jeffrey M. Wice, a Democratic redistricting attorney. “Courts always look at other plans.”
Stateline.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that reports and analyzes trends in state policy.