Frustrated by a closed process that results in gerrymandered districts, Michael McDonald (George Mason Univ. turnout expert) and Micah Altman (Harvard) together with thinkers like Norm Ornstein have initiated the quite interesting Public Mapping Project to enable citizens’ input on district boundaries for political seats.
Background: The WSJ on 7/30/13 reported on the consequences of having legislators draw their own district boundaries (akin to the fox guarding the chicken coop): “Of 435 districts in the Republican-controlled House, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates only 90 as competitive, meaning those seats have a partisan rating that falls within five points of the national average. The rating measures how each district votes relative to how the country as a whole voted in the most recent presidential election. The number of competitive districts [is] at its lowest since Cook first started the partisanship rating in the 1998 election cycle.”
But many states (VA, MI, OH, NY, AZ) and Philadelphia have used this new software developed by Michael McDonald and others to offer redistricting competitions where citizens compete to design the best districts. The software helps evaluate these maps along various criteria and prizes are awarded for the best maps. These public maps can become a reference against which the traditionally closed deliberations for redistricting are judged and to refute notions that there were not other better alternatives. This software can also be used by advocacy groups to weigh in against the redistricting commissions. In some cases students have designed much better maps than “experts” and is a vivid example of crowdsourcing, how incorporating the wisdom of the general population rather than relying on a small number of experts can lead to much smarter outcomes.
Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute thinks that this open-sourcing redistricting is more like a wonk-fest, since in general one has to be somewhat specialized and an avid political junkie to participate effectively.
Of course what makes a good map is itself contentious: Democrats may care more about helping to craft districts that help minorities get their own candidates elected than Republicans do. But clearly both parties are interested in trying to maximize the number of districts that are “safe” for their party or “lean” towards their party. To the extent that redistricting commissions reflect the party in power, or to the extent that the current legislative must approve it, even with better crowdsourced maps, it will not take the politics out of the process. And the irony of partisan-leaning districts is that they protect against smaller public opinion movements away from their party, but by creating fewer completely “safe” districts, it can put many more seats potentially at risk in there is a large storm surge against that party.
See a Brookings Institution discussion on the Congressional Redistricting effort on July 18, 2011 (Michael McDonald appears from about 21:00-31:00 in the talk).
Test out the software here and see other people’s maps.