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Drawing Better Boundaries

Minnesota is using new software to make redistricting easier and more transparent.

Ten years ago, the mechanics of congressional and legislative redistricting in most states was largely a manual process. The software of the period was cumbersome, difficult, expensive and carried a steep learning curve.

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.

A First-Mover
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 plan-making process," Meilleur said. "Maptitude is more flexible and provides more of what we need."

Maptitude was particularly helpful during the period when the four caucuses were meeting almost constantly and submitting bills. Troy Lawrence, assistant director of the GIS office, said that over a four-day period toward the end of May, the GIS office worked almost around the clock processing plans, turning out maps, preparing for hearings, etc.

As of June, all redistricting bills had been through the committee process, were past the floor and were in the conference phase, where conferees were trying to reconcile differences between the House and Senate principles. If consensus is reached, plans will still have to meet the technical requirements of law, be approved and signed by the governor and, finally, stand up to court challenges. Peter Wattson, chief council for the Minnesota Senate, said conferees may work through summer and fall until they have a plan. At that time the governor can call a special session of the legislature to enact it. If they dont produce a plan by March 19, 2002, the courts will step in.

Affecting the Political Process
Apart from the political process of redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries, Wattson said the software does make a difference. "The technology made it easier to get districts of equal population. Its made it possible to reduce population deviations," he said. "Also, the technology may make it easier to keep track of cities and counties that have been split, even reduce the number of splits. The standard reports we were able to produce with the plans make splitting, compacting, the partisan character of districts and the populations so easy to see -- they just jump right out at you."

"The ability to download a plan, analyze it and run it against another plan or index that another organization has come up with makes it more difficult to disguise political gamesmanship [such as splitting or compacting]," said Michael Brodkorp, redistricting specialist for the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus. "The technology lets you see immediately where and how changes have been made."

"The new software has made the redistricting process easier for some people to explore many alternatives quickly, " Johnson said. "After the next decennial census, it will be sophisticated enough and simple enough that large numbers of people who want to use it and get involved in the process will be able to."

In Minnesota, the new software has shown a potential for making redistricting a much more open process, making legislators more accountable to the public, and helping ensure that demographic concerns are not overshadowed by partisan interests or incumbency protection. Will the technology reduce delays caused by partisan disputes and long, drawn-out debates? Maybe not this time, but then redistricting tools will be even cleverer next time around.