Create Real Redistricting Reform through Internet-Scale Independent Commissions

Micah Altman, MIT Libraries; Brookings Institution
Michael P. McDonald, George Mason University; Brookings Institution

Discussion of redistricting reform often generates more heat than light. Much of the commentary dismisses the possibility of thoughtful, responsible electoral mapping altogether. Critics who dismiss responsible electoral mapping generally takes one of two lines of argument: Either they urge the nation to “let a computer do it” based on traditional criteria such as geographic compactness (see here for a review of many such attempts), or, more rarely, they deny that redistricting makes much of a difference – dismissing the disproportionately partisan outcomes yielded by many redistricting maps as inescapable side effects of the vagaries of elections or of the unevenness in the geographic distribution of partisan supporters. (see here and here for an example of each argument).

We, on the other hand, believe that thoughtful, responsible electoral mapping is possible. In fact, we’ve seen it: During the last U.S. redistricting cycle we saw, for the first time, thousands of engaged members of the public create hundreds of complex, fully legal redistricting plans by using open source software that we and others have developed (see here for a description of the system).

Furthermore, not only did members of the public create thoughtful plans, their plans differed systematically from those created by the legislature. When we examine public plans created in Virginia (here), in Florida (here), and in a preliminary analysis of public plans in Ohio, we find that, on the whole, these plans were less partisan and more competitive, without substantially reducing other traditional criteria, such as compactness or county integrity.

At a larger scale, a number of other countries, including Canada and the U.K. have implemented thoughtful, responsible redistricting at a national scale (see here for a discussion). In fact, the United States is exceptional in giving the legislature the authority to create its own districts. Other advanced democracies have achieved non-partisan redistricting by instituting independent redistricting commissions.

By maintaining true independence from the legislature and incorporating meaningful community participation, these commissions have effectively constrained partisan gerrymandering. Furthermore, a participative, transparent process legitimates outcomes and provides the opportunity to incorporate self-defined communities – rendering the occasional residual disproportionality in election results tolerable.

Effective commissions are challenging to design, especially given the history of  U.S. legislatures subersion of redistricting commissions nominal independence. Nevertheless, there are a number of factors that successful redistricting commissions share:

  • The commission should be funded to support a permanent staff in order to preserve institutional knowledge, to build expertise, and to seek, analyze, and incorporate public input. Funding should be insulated from legislative whim.

  • A commission plan should not be subject to legislative veto or modification.

Drawing on our studies of participative redistricting above, we further recommend that:

  • The commission should not be restricted to considering a specific set of quantitative criteria but should reflect local or emergent communities of interest and criteria.

  • The commission should be empowered to obtain any data that is possibly relevant, and practically obtainable, including political data such as registration totals and election statistics. If one values fairness, it is better to explicitly incorporate it as a goal rather than hoping it emerges by chance through a politics-blind process.

  • The commission should operate with complete transparency — all proposed plans, data, analyses, tools (software), records of public input, etc. should all be continuously accessible to the public online.

  • The commission should support multiple channels for meaningful public input. This should include providing a widely accessible, public online mechanism for the public to design, evaluate, submit, and compare definitions of plans, districts, and communities.

 In the 18th and 19th centuries, principles for US electoral mapping were governed by process-based criteria, primarily contiguity, integrity county boundaries, and equal population between (but not within) states – all are ex-ante attributes of plans. In the 20th century, Baker vs Carr added within-state population equality – but retained a focus on process-based criteria (see here for a discussion). More recently, the Freedom of Information Act and sunshine laws introduced principles of institutional transparency. Redistricting reform should build upon the technical advances of the new century.

Twenty-first century redistricting should incorporate  transparency at internet speed and scale  — open source, open data, open process (see here for in-depth recommendations) — and twenty-first century redistricting should incorporate internet technology for twenty-first century participation: direct access to the redistricting process; access to legal-strength mapping tools; and the integration of  crowd-sourcing to create maps, identify communities and neighborhoods, collect and correct data, and gather and analyze public commentary.

There are few policy arenas where the public can fashion legitimate proposals that rival what their elected officials enact. Redistricting is among them, so why not enable greater public participation in this critical democratic process?


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