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Redistricting for the masses: Cloud software lets voters participate

Robert L. Mitchell | May 23, 2011
Why should politicians have all the gerrymandering fun? LA County's cloud service lets voters participate.

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.

The tool, which allows for group collaboration, is tailored to the needs of neighborhood groups and other citizen activists. "We've worked to build a workflow that is citizen-friendly," she says, explaining that workflows are simpler than those on standard tools, with some advanced features removed.

Plans for the eight city council districts were due May 16.

— Robert L. Mitchell

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).

 

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