Nov112010

New Website Encourages Public Participation in Congressional Redistricting

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By James Greif

Michael McDonald. Photo by Evan Cantwell

A team of researchers from Mason, the Brookings Institution and Harvard University, in collaboration with Azavea, a Philadelphia-based software design company, announced the release of DistrictBuilder, a free, open-source, web-based software that will enable greater public participation and transparency during the upcoming electoral redistricting process.

The project is funded by a grant to Mason from the Sloan Foundation and led by Michael McDonald, Mason associate professor of public and international affairs, and Micah Altman, senior research scientist at Harvard University.

An advisory board of prominent government watchdog groups and redistricting experts is led by Thomas Mann at the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute. Project details — including instructions on how to access the mapping software — can be found on the project’s website.

Together, the project’s participants have articulated principles for public participation and transparency in redistricting.

“The drawing of electoral districts is among the least transparent processes in democratic governance,” says McDonald, describing the problem identified by the project’s participants. “All too often, redistricting authorities maintain their power by obstructing public participation. The resulting districts embody the goals of politicians to the detriment of the representational interests of communities and the public at large.”

The participants seek to change the power imbalance held by redistricting authorities by making it possible for the public to draw the boundaries of their communities and to generate redistricting plans for their state and localities.

“New technologies provide opportunities to broaden public participation in the redistricting process,” says Altman.

“Increasing transparency through this project can empower the public to shape the representation for their communities, promote public commentary and discussion about redistricting, inform legislators and redistricting authorities about configurations that their constituents support and educate the public about the electoral process.”

The project aims to be integrated into the electoral redistricting process in a number of areas. In states where redistricting authorities seek public input, the software could be used to help citizens build maps that truly represent their communities. Where redistricting authorities are not responsive to the representational needs of the public, maps drawn by the public may be used for comparison with a redistricting authority’s plan. In addition, when the regular redistricting process breaks down and the courts must step in, judges will have a greater menu of alternatives to consider due to the website’s different mapping options.

A screen shot from the website.

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