August 31, 2001 By Bill McGarigle
Todays redistricting tools are something entirely different. Designed primarily by makers of geographic information systems, they allow users to quickly analyze an enormous range of demographic information, voting records and other aggregate data. Incumbents can watch as a boundary line is moved this way or that and immediately see the changes in population, the ethnic and racial mix of a particular block, whether a precinct or neighborhood is being split, where minority/majority blocks can be created and which party is likely to gain or lose seats in Congress or in the state assembly. In fact, todays redistricting tools can spit out plans, maps and boundary options faster than anyone is capable of absorbing.
The new technology may make redistricting a faster, more open process. Tools that can quickly and accurately analyze and map the Census Bureaus TIGER 2000 files and P.L. 94-171 demographic fields may help produce plans that not only stand up in court, but reduce the number of legal challenges that dogged 41 of the 50 states after redistricting plans were enacted in 1992.
What affect the new technology will have on the actual political process of redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries depends as much on the legislatures approach as on the incumbents involved in the process. Minnesotas Hennipin County Commissioner Randy Johnson described redistricting as an almost life-and-death issue to many politicians. How congressional and legislative lines are redrawn can determine who will get elected or not elected over an entire decade. "In the scramble for political survival everybody is looking to rely on somebody else to make sure they dont get shafted in the process." Johnson said. Under these circumstances, partisan infighting and incumbency protection can quickly overshadow demographic concerns and community interests.
Minnesota is one of the most progressive states when it comes to utilizing software in redistricting efforts. In Minnesota, Republicans control the House, the Democratic-Farm-Labor (DFL) Party has a majority in the Senate, and the governor is a member of the Independence Party. Although the Minnesota Legislature has yet to agree on principles for redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries, the new technology reportedly has several advantages and very little downside. In addition to speed and convenience, advantages include openness, increased accuracy of demographic analysis, and the ability to support redistricting standards that are more likely to stand up in court.
So far, the technology appears to have had little effect on the partisan nature of the redistricting process. Republican and DFL caucuses in both the Senate and the House each draw up a redistricting plan, four in all, along with the principles and guidelines used in drafting them. Each caucus has a team of hired GIS/redistricting technicians. Each has the same redistricting software, printers, plotters, monitors and workstations all other caucuses use. Completed redistricting plans and principles worked out by the different caucuses are sent as bills to the nonpartisan Legislative GIS Office, where they are processed into a standardized format with maps, reports and statistics for each district. The bills are then made available to conference committees and floor sessions, and at the same time put on the Web for public access. Anyone can download them, look at the interactive maps and use the data to put together their own plans, including those by counties and cities.
Lee Meilleur, director of the Legislative GIS Office, said Minnesota regularly uses ESRI software, but this year the legislature, GIS office and counties are all using Maptitude for Redistricting from Caliper Corp. "We cant produce the quality of maps with Maptitude that we can with ArcInfo, but redistricting is more or less a data-crunching and
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