WASHINGTON – Citizens and amateur demographers will soon have a way to get involved in a political process previously consigned to political backrooms and academic research centers.
New web-based programs will give individuals access to the same tools formerly available only to state legislators who determine once every 10 years where the boundaries of state and federal legislative districts will be.
Thomas Hofeller,a consultant for the Republican National Committee and a veteran of four redistricting cycles,said it is a “rough and tumble process.”
“Deals are struck and re-struck through the entire process,” Hofeller said. “People bring their own ideas and agendas to the table.”
How these districts are drawn will affect who is chosen for office for the next decade in local,state and national elections.
After each decennial census,voting districts are redrawn to ensure that each district contains an equal number of people and that minority candidates have a fair chance of being elected.
According to the Census Bureau’s population clock,the average population of congressional districts has risen to about 714,000 in 2010 from 647,000 in 2000.
By the end of the year,the Census Bureau will determine how many members of the House of Representatives each state gets. States with lower populations will lose seats to states with populations that have grown since the last census.
In most states,the secretary of state appoints a commission of elected officials to draw districts.
According to a redistricting forecast created by Michael McDonald of the Public Mapping project,South Carolina and Washington may gain one seat each and Texas may gain as many as four. Iowa,Louisiana,Minnesota,Missouri,New Jersey,New York and Ohio may each lose one or two seats.
After the number of seats per state is determined,legislators begin drawing districts for congressional and state legislative districts.
As politicians vie for plans that will benefit their own parties,activist groups that educate minorities are working to ensure each group’s rights are protected.
“It’s important that the process produces maps that represent the diversity of the community we live in,” said Kristen Clarke,co-director of the Political Participation Group at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. “Fair maps are what give voice to communities and ensure a broad cross section of communities have real voice.”
Tim Storey,an elections expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures,said community involvement is the biggest change since the last redistricting cycle. He attributed this change to more accessible technology.
Thanks to Internet technology,such as Bing maps and independently designed applications,individuals can analyze census and election data to draw their own maps.
Story said legislators are still figuring out how to manage public interest and make outside contributions worthwhile.
Seeing the need for an affordable option for individuals,Mike McDonald,a professor at George Mason University,collaborated with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University to create a,free, open-source online mapping application to provide an inexpensive alternative for individuals to create their own maps to submit to legislators.
McDonald said the program is still a prototype,but with increased funding from investors,it should be available by February when detailed census data is released.
Storey said states are paying attention to new processes like McDonald’s software and are setting up systems to collect data from outside contributors.
Florida and Texas are setting up their own online systems. The Florida House of Representatives is creating an online application using Bing maps that will provide some data and the same tools the legislators are using so individuals can draw maps and submit them to the redistricting committee,Storey said.
In Texas,legislators use a proprietary program called RedAppl. The public does not have access to the program,but current maps and census data can be found on the state’s redistricting website.
Some national organizations,such as the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund have organized training sessions for community leaders.
“Many have already worked on issues in their town,” said Nina Perales,southwest regional counsel at MALDEF.
She said they usually already belong to advocacy organizations that are aware of the issues facing Latinos in their communities.
Perales said they talk about the basic rules of redistricting,putting special emphasis on the guarantees under the Voting Rights Act. MALDEF also asks people how they envision the lines being drawn.
After getting this input,MALDEF encourages community leaders to draw their own maps to present to legislators. Then,MALDEF draws its own maps for legislators.
As MALDEF focuses on Latino representation in the Southwest,the NAACP LDF continues to represent African American voters,mostly in the South,where some states must submit their plans to the Justice Department for review.
Clarke said the fund launched a new website to provide individuals with an overview of how redistricting works and explain why it is important to be involved in the process.
“Its important that it is carried out in a way that is open and transparent or allows for easy public participation,” Clarke said.