The Common Good
April 2011

The Shape of Things to Come

by Michael McDonald | April 2011

New software may help the public have a greater voice in the crucial redrawing of voting districts.

From now through 2013, electoral district boundaries, which affect who represents you in Congress and other state and local governments, will be readjusted to address changing demographics. The stakes are as high as ever for this arcane process, which affects control of legislatures and communities’ representation. But for this round of redistricting, new, open-source mapmaking software holds the promise of unprecedented public participation.

At the founding of the U.S., the Constitution gave states the primary responsibility to design electoral institutions. Not long afterward, Declaration of Independence signer and Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry emblazoned his name into the political lexicon when, to give his political party more power, he drew a salamander-shaped state legislative district, soon dubbed a “Gerry-mander.”

Gerrymandering has played an ignominious role in the history of racial discrimination, as white Southerners drew districts to dilute African Americans’ voting strength. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 rectified this by requiring, under certain circumstances, special districts designed to create opportunities for minority candidates. The Act has been a resounding success.

However, there has been little success constraining partisan, as contrasted to racial, gerrymandering. Although the Supreme Court has found partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional, the tie-breaking Justice Kennedy has not found a judicial standard to his liking; without one, no judicial remedy can be applied. Reformers have thus turned to state practices, either by changing who draws the lines or by imposing criteria on how they are drawn.

Historically, state legislatures have drawn districts. Reformers advocate for redistricting commissions—but not all commissions are created equal; some actually are designed to concentrate power in the hands of a few political leaders. Only Arizona and California have commissions that I consider truly independent: Politicians cannot serve on them, they conduct their business in the sunlight, they consider the public’s testimony, and they are solely responsible for redistricting. (Iowa has an advisory commission, but its recommendations can be, and have been, rejected by the legislature).

Another reform path has been to impose constraints on how lines are drawn; the Voting Rights Act is the most successful example. In the 1990s, various states began to more frequently enforce other criteria (new or long-standing) found in state law. Unfortunately, enforcement, limited to the most egregious violations, has not had an appreciable effect.

Among these criteria are drawing compact districts—but, although reformers’ intuition is that funny districts indicate funny business, strange shapes do not always reflect political shenanigans. Sometimes they are based on respect for existing political boundaries or communities of interest. Our communities and our cities are not arrayed on a nice grid; drawing districts as if they were produces nonsensical results blind to the public’s needs.

Human judgment is thus desirable and necessary, and this is where public participation is important. In the past, only politicians and their consultants possessed the tools necessary to draw maps.

Earlier this year, however, my colleagues with the Public Mapping Project and I introduced free software that allows people to draw legal districts through their web browsers. It has already drawn interest from advocates, academics, and governments.

What effect will this have? Some states accept public submissions. In others, the media and public can use public plans as a yardstick to measure government actions. Finally, where the courts become involved, judges will have a larger menu of plans, produced by a diversity of interests, to consider. We hope for a more robust public debate about how to draw districts—ones that meet communities’ representational needs, rather than the self-interest of politicians.

Michael McDonald teaches government and politics at George Mason University and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is part of a team bringing redistricting to the public at www.publicmapping.org.

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