Drawing the Line

Better technology is making it easier for politicians to manipulate voting districts in favor of a single party.

by / May 6, 2001
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.

What this means is, for the first time, desktop and laptop computers will play a major role in redistricting. Marshall Turner, chief of the Census 2000 Redistricting Data Office, noted, "The critical importance of the census in redistricting is clearly reflected in the fact that state legislatures have developed increasing expertise in using the new technology of CD-ROMs and the Internet to carry out the steps in the redistricting process."

Pursuing the Partisan Advantage

Redistricting is intended to adjust for population shifts and equalize the number of people represented by each legislator. Instead, according to the non-partisan Center for Voting and Democracy, it has become a power-grab to pack political opponents into as few districts as possible and to enhance ones own partisan advantage.

This is hardly new. "Gerrymander," named for onetime Massachusetts Gov. Eldridge Gerry, has been with us since at least 1812. But the growing sophistication of technology brings new precision to maximizing partisan returns and diluting votes.

"Without a doubt, technology has made it easier for the line-drawers to more accurately influence the outcome in a partisan way," said Eric Olson, deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "With todays computer technology, you can essentially go block by block."

"Right now, we really dont have a very fair, democratic system," Olson added. "If you look at the last Congressional elections, for example, out of the 435 seats in Congress, Republicans and Democrats agreed that there were only going to be about 40 seats that were remotely competitive. Thats less than 10 percent of the seats. Essentially more than 90 percent of the Congressional districts were already decided because of the way the lines were drawn.

"So in a lot of states, legislators are rubbing their hands, itching to redraw those lines because it really does, in a lot of places, determine who will control the state legislatures for the next 10 years. And also who has an advantage in Congress. The stakes are very high."

The center argues that the best fix would probably be moving from the U.S.-style "winner-takes-all" voting system to a proportional or semi-proportional representation system as used by some of the worlds other established democracies. This, they feel, would make it much more difficult to gerrymander elections.

"Right now, we have single-member districts, where up to 49.9 percent of the population can go unrepresented," said Olson. "The more proportional system you had, the less impact the line drawing would have. If you had a 10-seat district and you used a proportional system, every 10 percent of the voters would essentially elect someone of their choice.

"Our point has been that the whole redistricting process now is one where politicians are drawing the lines, and thereby choosing their voters before the voters get to choose them. They are creating safe seats. And with the advance of computer technology, it is easier than ever for politicians to draw those lines with greater and greater accuracy."

Principles in Conflict

Electoral reform is likely to be a hot topic in the next few years. And while this will focus largely on campaign finance reform and new voting machines to eliminate dimpled chads from the political battleground, perhaps it shouldnt stop there. Redistricting coupled with new technology is raising serious questions, at least in some quarters, about the fundamental integrity of the American democratic process.

When it comes to redistricting, technology brings to the forefront the continuing conflict of two bedrock principles of American democracy: minority representation and majority rule. Reconciling the tension between these two seemingly dissonant values has been a challenge throughout much of this nations history.

James Madison, who initiated much of this electoral progress, was preeminently preoccupied with the potential subjugation of minority interests. He warned: "If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure."

His general feeling was that the majority had to be disaggregated into smaller, more fluid interests.

The vision of the framers of the Constitution was that the practice of districting would not only serve to constrain potentially tyrannical state majorities, but also ensure that regional and partisan minority groups were represented. It seems clear that in the current American system, given the capabilities of modern technology, we continue to move away from rather than toward that ideal.
Blake Harris Contributing Editor