Twenty years ago gerrymandering by Los Angeles County politicians disenfranchised the Latino community, leading to an embarrassing Department of Justice lawsuit that overturned the plan - and ten years of federal oversight of the redistricting process.
This year, thanks to a Gov 2.0 initiative, LA County voters can draw voting districts for themselves.
LA County's Public Access Plan, one of several projects under way nationally, allows any citizen to view, analyze, modify or create their own redistricting plans at any time, day or night, from any Internet-connected computer. The cloud-based service shines the light of day in what has been an opaque process. But will voters care enough to embrace it?
They should. "Redistricting is a layer away from where people live and the things they really care about, like health care policy. But it has a tremendous impact on elections, which have a tremendous impact on policy," says Tim Storey, senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A check on gerrymandering
While DoJ rules make it harder for politicians to gerrymander districts today, some abuses continue. Over the years redistricting has been wielded as a political weapon to disenfranchise one community of interest at the expense of another -- or even to separate a competing candidate from his constituency, says Rich Leadbeater, manager of industry solutions for state government at GIS vendor Esri, which provided the cloud-based service LA County is using.
Perhaps the most famous example: after President Obama ran for congress and lost in 1998 he was gerrymandered out of his own district in 2001. "All of a sudden a coffee cup handle went out [from an adjacent district], grabbed his house and went back in. That was done by his own party," Leadbeater says. "The person he ran against in 1998 was on the redistricting committee."
LA County built it. Will they come?
With the tools up and running, the question on everyone's mind right now is whether the public policy experiment will take off.
An argument has been made that the rules are simply too complicated for the public to understand and will prevent public participation in tweaking political districts.
Will that complexity undermine policymaker's efforts to increase citizen participation? Although the rules governing how a district can be created are quite involved, and the tools for modifying and validating a plan require some investment of time, the service provided by LA County breaks the process down for users, walking them through the steps.
It even performs a basic validity check on the districts that users create. And advocacy groups that don't like the tool can download the data and use it with any other tool of their choosing.
While it is time consuming to create a viable plan that balances all considerations for an entire county, every voter can use the tool to see firsthand how proposed changes will affect their own neighborhood and communities of interest -- or to propose a better alternative. At a minimum the public will be better informed.
Plans created by citizens can be formally filed using the cloud-based service. Politicians ignore them at their own peril. "There has been more tension leading into this cycle than the two previous cycles," says Storey, so they're more likely to challenge a plan they see as unfair.
If they do, he says, and if they have a valid plan that better meets the requirements, that challenge will hold up in court.