them the same tools and data used by the county’s analysts. That
includes digital maps with existing congressional, state senate and
school district lines, as well as total population, with breakdowns
by ethnicity, voter age, gender, household income, home values,
political affiliation, and voting behavior in recent elections within
each of the county’s 2,900 redistricting units (or RDUs, roughly
equivalent to the county subdivisions known as census tracts).
Users can click on RDUs to include or exclude them from a
district or simply drag boundary lines. As they update boundaries, the statistical data shown in an embedded table or graph
Today’s redistricting software — offered by Esri, Caliper and
Citygate GIS — is much easier to use than it was 10 years ago,
Greninger says. And while the county’s service includes support,
he won’t have people running to different offices to provide training and address technical problems.
The new system is also more convenient for citizens, who no
longer need to travel to use a dedicated computer — any computer
with a browser and Internet access will do. And access is available
24 hours a day. “People can do it in their own homes,” Pedersen says.
The unanswered question is whether the tools will produce
more public input — and generate better districts.
“We could get 10 plans or 1,000,” Greninger says. Even Esri,
which just recently introduced its cloud-based offering, is waiting
to see what happens. “Honestly, I’m still convincing myself that the
market is really ready for it,” said Richard Leadbeater, manager of industry solutions for state government at Redlands, Calif.-based Esri.
Zimmerman is also taking a wait-and-see attitude. “I question
whether there are that many people who want to go through
the process,” he says. While the tools are better, the rules of
the game for producing a viable plan are complex, governed by
the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights Act, court rulings and
regulations. And when it comes to crunching the numbers to get
optimized outcomes, computers can only take you so far.
A Hollywood portrayal of gerrymandering might include
scenes of political operatives in front of high-performance
computers in back rooms, crunching terabytes of demographic
and voting history data, and optimizing districts to produce the
best possible outcome for a given politician or party. Indeed, the
political parties do run very exacting analyses of every voter, says
Leadbeater. “Do they own cats, eat Ramen Noodles, read Esquire
magazine? The parties are doing this in spades.” But there are too
many variables to automatically optimize district boundaries.
Some variables are straightforward, such as the requirement for
each district to contain the same number of people. Others, such
the definition of “communities of interest” — which are demographic groups that must be preserved in the new setup — are
fuzzy. “There’s no algorithm for that,” Greninger says.
Even determining the racial makeup of a district can be challenging; for example, the 2010 census included 159 race categories. “It’s a very complex, massive computation problem, and it’s
all about trade-offs,” Leadbeater says.
Plus, different rules and principles may be at odds in a given
plan. There’s no clear determinant as to what takes priority in
such cases. It is, says Ochoa, “a very complicated and subjective
process” that takes many hours of time and effort. He thinks that
people who want to develop viable plans really need to know how
to analyze and interpret the results. “Having the software is different than knowing how to redistrict,” Ochoa says.
G O V E R N M E N T Tools for Drawing
Your Own Districts
While a handful of governments are working on
cloud-based redistricting applications for public use,
there are several private initiatives that let citizens
participate in the redistricting process.
n District Builder
The Public Mapping Project, a public interest coalition,
has developed an open-source redistricting application.
The Advancement Project, a Los Angeles-based public
policy organization, has a free, publicly available Web-based redistricting tool for California.
n Dave’s Redistricting Application
This free program, created by programmer Dave Bradlee,
lets users create congressional district plans for any state
— ROBERT L. MITCHELL
But users may not need that knowledge to make a difference.
The complexity of the problem is overstated, argues civil rights
advocate Kim. “They make it seem so technical and so difficult
that people throw up their hands.” The debate, he says, has been
framed in such a way as to discourage public engagement. But it’s
not rocket science. And on April 15, Kim’s organization launched
its own redistricting application for Californians at Redrawca.org.
If the technology by itself doesn’t guarantee a successful redistricting outcome, people can certainly use it to show the impact
of different redistricting plans on their own neighborhoods. For
example, citizens can use the new systems to define their own
“community of interest” and object to plans that would split their
neighborhoods into different districts. “The name of the game
is preserving your political efficacy and power, which means
making sure your community doesn’t get cut up,” says Kim.
While elected officials and large advocacy groups such as
MALDEF already have their own systems, the Public Access Plan
is sure to help “the little guy — grass-roots organizations and
neighborhood councils,” Ochoa says.
Zimmerman says he expects about 20 complete plans to be
submitted — and a lot more comments. “I think it will be an
educational process and a lively debate [that] could result in the
enhancement of the final plan,” he says. The answers will come
soon: The deadline for submitting plans is May 31.
Greninger is optimistic about the program. “I’m hoping this
changes democracy in California,” he says. “If you don’t have all
of these safe districts anymore, the battles won’t be fought in the
primaries. They’ll be fought in the general elections, and you’ll
get more moderate candidates.”
Public access is a win for legislators, too, Storey says. “It helps
them avoid big mistakes and end up in court, losing on the plan
they adopted,” he says. “And if someone draws up a plan that’s
better that is going to be considered by the courts, it’s going to set
a standard — for better or worse.” u