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.