Monday, April 06, 2009

The OpenRedistricting Project

Heather K. Gerken

As Balkinization readers know, I've written a great deal about what I call the "here to there" problem -- small-bore institutional changes that would smooth the path for reform, making bigger and better reform possible. One of the areas I've focused on is redistricting. Below is an excellent idea from Travis Crum, a Yale student, who proposes another strategy for raising awareness of the problem and engaging citizens in the solution.

The OpenRedistricting Project

As America enters the 2010 redistricting cycle, change is the last thing on most politicians' minds. Despite judicial intervention, academic denouncements, and popular mobilization, the redistricting process remains plagued by two seemingly intractable problems. First, in many states, partisan actors control the commanding heights. Unless independent redistricting institutions are developed, partisan shenanigans will continue interfering in the process. Second, most voters are uninformed about redistricting. Complicating matters even further, these two problems reinforce one another. Politicians, motivated by incumbent protection and partisanship, have every incentive to keep their constituents in the dark.

Voter ignorance, however, stems from being shut out of the process, not apathy. Websites like Stimulus Watch and Wikileaks showcase how a committed core of citizen activists can utilize open source technology to make their government more responsive and transparent. Building off these success stories, my goal is to influence the redistricting process through one simple insight: democratizing redistricting technology will decentralize the decision-making process.

Or to put it in the parlance of our times: what better way to know a district than to draw it yourself?

The OpenRedistricting Project has two separate, but interdependent, components. The development of user-friendly, free redistricting software is a necessary step for bringing ordinary citizens into the process. Once that is completed, a social networking site dedicated to monitoring the 2010 redistricting cycle should be created. With these new platforms, the netroots will have a seat at the redistricting table.

Redistricting software, which currently costs several thousand dollars, is prohibitively expensive for average citizens, leaving decision-making in the hands of political professionals. Admittedly, some people are already working to solve this problem (see here and here). But these programs seek mathematical solutions for partisan gerrymandering. While this goal may be well-intentioned, it limits citizen involvement.

An ideal open source program would allow users to manipulate district lines using pre-programmed census data, demonstrating how simple shifts in boundaries can have profound impacts on a district's racial or partisan composition. Similar to for-profit programs, the open source software would use GIS technology, such as Google Earth, to display and compare proposals. For example, one could watch the South's transition from rotten boroughs in the 1960s to majority-minority districts in the 1980s and 1990s to coalition districts today. The program would permit users to experiment with their own preferences, as well as offer guidance in following redistricting requirements. Indeed, the Redistricting Game provides a useful -- albeit imaginary -- model.

This software would then be disseminated via a social networking site, allowing users to develop, share, and evaluate redistricting proposals. Based on sites like Digg and Wikipedia, this Redistricting Wiki would be user-driven and accommodate a wide range of interest and expertise. The Redistricting Wiki would permit anyone who could operate a Google Earth-style program to design their own districts. Site administrators would post every state redistricting proposal and invite interested groups, such as the NAACP, to submit their own schemes.

Speaking hypothetically, the homepage would display a "State of the Day" and rank plans according to an algorithm, factoring in compliance with redistricting criteria, user-generated rankings, a plan's number of views, etc. A user could sort the plans by various criteria, such as competitiveness or compactness. Moving from passive to active participant, a user could develop a plan from scratch or manipulate an existing one. Next, the user decides whether to submit their plan for public display and scrutiny. Other users could then critique the plan and give it a ranking. Repeating this process enough times would clear out gerrymandering’s smoke-filled rooms and bring the wisdom of crowds to the process.

This platform would be a profound step in educating voters about redistricting. A centralized hub for the nation's redistricting information would transcend the inherent localism of the decennial process, showing citizens where their state's redistricting plan falls in a nationwide ranking. Similar to election night coverage, television broadcasters could use this program to explain redistricting to viewers, generating even greater interest in the site. Moreover, CNN's successful embrace of Twitter and Facebook evidences ordinary citizens' desire to express their political views on social networking sites.

The OpenRedistricting Project would also strengthen good governance institutions. While Heather Gerken's shadow redistricting commissions and Sam Hirsch's redistricting contests are solid ideas, they run the risk of being controlled by elites. Social networking sites, however, assemble unprecedented numbers of participants in a decentralized decision-making process. Posting on the Redistricting Wiki would enhance a commission's legitimacy, linking its findings and conclusions to a broad popular base. In turn, commissions could provide much needed leadership, publicity, and funding in the early stages of the project.

The dynamic collaboration between shadow commissions and the OpenRedistricting Project would go far beyond comparing proposals. A blog or message board would create a forum for citizens to speak out about their state's redistricting process. Mock elections would be held between competing plans. Contests, with or without prize money, would challenge people to design a redistricting scheme that best achieved a certain objective. If politicians are tweeting during a presidential address to Congress, imagine the additional exposure the redistricting process would receive.

Although this may seem fanciful at the moment, remember that Wikipedia was inconceivable as recently as the last redistricting cycle. Whether run by a major law firm or a group of college friends, social networking sites are revolutionizing the way information is distributed and consumed. While the dearth of freely available partisan data poses a problem for this technology, the very existence of the site could instigate the citizen mobilization needed to convince state and local governments to gather and/or release this information. Additionally, the Redistricting Wiki could create an army of free labor to refine the open source software using Google Code or SourceForge, sustaining the project into the 2020 cycle.

The OpenRedistricting Project won't destroy gerrymanders, but it may create something to fight them: wikimanders.

Travis Crum, Class of 2011, Yale Law School