The impact of technology and the Internet upon the American democratic process is much like an iceberg -- 90 percent of it lies out of sight. Already in many jurisdictions, technology has become key in determining who is in power for the next 10 years.

In the last election, it was no accident that both the Democratic and Republican parties spent millions of dollars on a handful of state legislative elections that they usually ignore. Strategically, it was these races that would largely determine who controls the House for the next decade. The reason is simple. The party that controls a states government controls its redistricting process.

Starting in March, after the Census Bureau released block-by-block counts, state legislatures began their varied processes to redraw more than 400 U.S. House districts to bring them in line with the 2000 Census population count. The Constitution requires that each state receive at least one seat, but the remaining seats are divided up to account for changing population after each census. The Census 2000 population figures require seats be taken away from 10 states and added to eight other states, maintaining a House with 435 members.

However, technology has made the redistricting process a high political art where the state-by-state battles to redraw district lines have as much to do with winning elections as does the actual votes cast by the voter. And for the first time, desktop and laptop computers will play a role in the redistricting process.

Census Bureau Online

From the Census Bureau perspective, new technological tools are designed to help state officials better deal with the difficult task of redrawing their districts. These tools include statistical summaries on CD-ROM, county-based voting district and state legislative district outline maps, and county-based block maps that show population totals and summaries by race and voting age. Statistical summaries indicate voting districts, county subdivisions, American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian areas, census tracts, block groups and blocks.

Although the bureau has supplied plotted maps to offices involved in redistricting, the same information is also now available on CD-ROM to use with geographic information systems or redistricting software.

TIGER, which stands for Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing, is the Bureaus database system originally developed jointly with the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1980s. This provides users with map data of the United States right down to the names of streets, the potential address range and associated ZIP+4 codes for each side of the street. It also includes the boundaries and codes for statistical areas, such as census tracts and census blocks, for which the Census Bureau collects and tabulates data. Before tabulating the Census 2000 data, the bureau used TIGER to assign the block numbers for all census blocks in the entire nation.

TIGER allows census data for each individual block to be meaningful and represent the latest possible information. And because the TIGER database contains legal and statistical geographic areas and codes and the underlying street network, it offers a powerful tool to display census and demographic data graphically.

Using the TIGER/Line files -- the public version of the TIGER database -- and appropriate software, users can rapidly determine the impact on the demographic makeup of a district when a boundary is moved. All of the TIGER/Line files for the nation fit on seven CD-ROMs in compressed format. Uncompressed, the nations data is about 30 GBs.

Additionally, the American FactFinder, a new online service of the Census Bureau, allows users to access predefined data products and metadata about communities. It also offers the ability to create custom data products online that either access data in a specific way or generate user-defined reports. American FactFinder is accessed through the Census Bureau home page.

Blake Harris  |  Contributing Editor