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Utah, Fort Worth Offer Public Online Redistricting Tool

State and local officials are giving residents the ability to map and submit redistricting proposals online, to better gather feedback and provide the sort of transparency that could reduce gerrymandering fears.

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Utah and Fort Worth, Texas, are turning to online mapping tools to help officials gather public feedback on their redistricting efforts. The once-in-a-decade redrawing of boundaries will impact political representation and distribution of federal funds.

Fort Worth, for example, is adding two new city council districts, the city’s Communications and Public Engagement Department director, Michelle Gutt, told Government Technology, while Utah will expand and shrink several districts to respond to shifts in county populations, according to a Utah Legislative Redistricting Committee press release.

The Census Bureau released its 2020 data on Aug. 12, giving jurisdictions the information needed to begin this process. In many states, the already high-stakes event is playing out against a backdrop of voting access fights, which could make concerns over potential gerrymandering especially fraught.

The mapping tools aim to help residents better convey their priorities by logging into the online systems to prepare and submit their own proposed district designs for officials to consider.

If all goes well, the efforts could help residents get their voices heard, and Gutt said that offering residents’ mapping tools and publishing information online infuses transparency into the process.

The approach could help fend off some gerrymandering accusations by giving constituents better insights into the trade-offs that emerge as officials try to juggle various priorities and requirements, said Utah Rep. Paul Ray, co-chair of the state’s Legislative Redistricting Committee. Utah’s Legislature will draw up its new congressional and legislative districts using feedback from the committee, an independent advisory body and the general public.

“[Residents will] realize how hard it is to draw a map, in our case to encompass 75 house seats, 29 senate seats,” Ray told Government Technology. “It’s easy to say, ‘It ought to look like this,’ but when they actually look at the populations and start drawing the maps, you can't make it look like they want you to make it look like.”

He noted the method is a far cry from the older, paper-based approached used in 2001.

“All [members of the public] could do is look at the paper copies of the map that we gave to them and then comment on it. And we would kind of hand draw some of the requests that they made,” Ray said.

BALANCING PRIORITIES


Users cannot submit just any redistricting maps. Utah’s Legislative Redistricting Committee requires all submissions address the entire state and meet all the same legal requirements that officials will have to in their plan, committee co-chair Sen. Scott Sandall said.

Both Utah and Fort Worth selected a mapping tool from geographic information system (GIS) software provider Esri that they said allows users to click to view how their mockups line up against various criteria, such as state and federal rules.

The federal government requires districts contain roughly the same number of residents and avoid designs that would undercut the voting power of racial minorities.

States and localities often set additional priorities. Common ones include that all territory included in a district be physically close together, that the territory be connected without interruption, that the district lines hew closely to the previous ones or that districts avoid splitting neighborhoods in which residents share common political interests.

The Utah Legislative Redistricting Committee’s requests for users to consider all the criteria and mock-redistrict the entire state isn’t the only approach being taken. The Utah Independent Redistricting Commission — an advisory body acting in parallel to the legislative committee — allows residents to opt to simply outline their local communities of interest, for example.

GETTING ENGAGEMENT


Ray said that offering a mapping tool produced clear successes when the state first deployed it to support 2011 redistricting.

“One of the maps that we actually used for our state school board was actually put together by the public,” Ray said.

Officials are now taking lessons from last time around and are focused on pushing engagement.

During the prior redistricting, Utah’s efforts drew 300 responses from individuals and organizations, Sandall said. At the time, the state housed nearly 2 million voting-age residents, out of which more than 1 million were registered voters, according to 2010 Census data.

Fort Worth, meanwhile, received only 10 user submissions for the 2011 redistricting, all of which the city believed were likely submitted by individuals, Gutt said. That year, the city’s voting-age population totaled nearly 524,000 according to 2010 Census data, although the actual number of registered voters may be smaller.

Fort Worth’s Redistricting Task Force and Utah’s legislative committee are building on their outreach strategies in hopes of better engagement. According to Gutt, city officials realized they needed to start familiarizing the public on the tool sooner, and has posted a training video online as well as held in-person training sessions even in advance of the official 2020 Census data becoming available. Residents were able to practice with 2010 data, and further sessions will use the now-published findings.

Sandall said the Utah team has also buffed its training resources, and its current vendor contract sees the mapping tool supplier post an online tutorial to help answer resident questions.

MAKING MAPS ACCESSIBLE


Engaging a broad swathe of residents also entails reaching across the digital divide. Not all residents have home computers, and Gutt said the city’s training sessions have laptops on hand for attendees to borrow, while libraries and community centers provide on-site computers for use outside of the workshops.

Some features also reduce the work users face by allowing residents to build off existing maps rather than start fresh from a blank slate. Utah’s setup this year allows residents to work off a template map that shows the current district lines, Sandall said, while Fort Worth allows visitors to copy maps shared by other users and then make their own modifications, Gutt said.

FINAL DESIGNS


Technology only goes so far. Utah and Fort Worth will both rely on human attention to individually vet and sort through all submitted maps, before turning them over to the bodies charged with creating official maps.

“While the technology is great, and we've got all of these different layers [of redistricting criteria] that we're able to enter into the software, there's also that stage where you're going to have to have actual people looking at the map to identify some of those areas that might be of concern,” Gutt said.

After the feedback is in and evaluated, redistricting authorities will prepare their own proposals using similar software.

When it comes time to finalize plans, Utah will turn to a more complex tool from GIS solutions provider Citygate, which Ray said shows geography in a more fine-grained, street-level view to ensure lines don’t “cut across somebody’s kitchen” or split neighbors into different districts.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.


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