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.
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).
Between 1990 and 2000, the technology took a big leap. Suddenly MALDEF could afford to buy the software, which could be run on a desktop computer. For smaller public interest groups, however, the tools were still out of reach.
After the 2000 census, the county began offering public access to redistricting systems, but only a few desktop computers were made available to the public in certain county offices, and only during normal business hours. And while it was technically possible for the public to analyze proposed district boundaries and generate plans, the software wasn't easy to use and required training. So in the end, the county received just four or five plans, from organizations that were able to purchase their own redistricting software.
But this year, citizens of LA County won't have to spend a dime for their own systems. Esri's cloud-based application gives 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 updates dynamically.
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.
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."