Cloud software lets voters participate in redistricting

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Old 24-May-2011
Post Cloud software lets voters participate in redistricting

As the 2010 U.S. census results arrived in March, Los Angeles County's politicians started ramping up for redistricting -- the once-a-decade, computing-intensive, often contentious process of geographically carving up the populace into discrete parcels of voters.

In the past, such decisions were made by politicians using expensive computer systems and software. Participation in the process was limited to an elite few who could afford experts who understood redistricting's arcane rules and geographic information system (GIS) technology well enough to game them.

"Redistricting is an extraordinarily important process in terms of who has a political voice, but it's an extraordinarily elitist field," says John Kim, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group based in Los Angeles.

This year, however, it won't just be the politicians and special interest groups poring over the data and tweaking boundary lines. All 4.5 million registered voters in LA County have access to a cloud-based redistricting application called the Public Access Plan. Hosted by GIS vendor Esri, the application lets voters view and modify existing maps and boundaries, submit comments, and even create and submit their own plans from scratch.

Users have access not just to maps with political boundaries, but to geo-coded census and county voting data as well, all of which can be tabulated and displayed over a district map as a table or graph. Or, if they already have a GIS and redistricting software, they can download the data.

"The county wants to promote the widest practicable citizen involvement in the redistricting process," says Martin Zimmerman, assistant CEO for LA County.

LA County is among the first government entities to consider providing Web-based tools that allow for direct public participation. "This notion of public access has changed quite dramatically," says Tim Storey, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Throwing that wide open is a big step."

The big question now is whether the public will use it.

"People want to know how the decision is made, and they have an opportunity to participate if they want to take the time," says Curt Pedersen, chairman of the county's Supervisorial Redistricting Boundary Committee. The appointed members of the committee will review plans, hold public hearings and make a recommendation to the LA County Board of Supervisors, an elected body that will approve the final plan.

That's a big change from the backroom deals and less-open processes that caused problems in the past. Complaints about gerrymandering circulated after the 1980 census. And after the 1990 census, the Latino community filed a discrimination lawsuit that led the U.S. Department of Justice to overturn the county's plan and redraw boundaries. After the 2000 census, the Justice Department required the county to increase citizen involvement in redistricting.

The Justice Department no longer actively monitors the process, but the county remains committed to taking a more open approach, says Mark Greninger, the county's geographic information officer. "Politicians don't do redistricting anymore. It's a citizens commission," he says, although the politicians still appoint those citizens.

Democracy Tech

Technological advances are gradually opening up the process by making the software used in redistricting more affordable and accessible.

In the 1980s, redistricting tools cost about $300,000; by 1990, the cost had dropped to about $100,000, but that was still more than even large advocacy groups could afford. "All we had was a file cabinet full of index cards with the populations by census tracts," says Steven Ochoa, national redistricting coordinator for the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

Sacramento Offers Mapping Lite

The city of Sacramento, like LA County, is providing redistricting software to voters by way of a Web-accessible service hosted by Esri. Unlike LA County, however, Sacramento will limit the data it offers to basic maps and political boundaries, plus census block data on population, ethnicity and race, says Maria MacGunigal, the city's GIS manager.

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