Redistricting: Out of smoke-filled rooms, onto citizens’ laptops

Move over, politically appointed, behind-closed-doors, state redistricting commissions: There’s a new kid in town–a new, data-driven, non-political website that’s challenging old ideas about how to draw a Congressional district. And it may end up creating the first ever non-partisan map of all 435 congressional districts in the nation. has just gone live [March 2011]. It’s a project created by Columbia University Law School students as an outgrowth of a course on redistricting and gerrymandering. According to its founders, has three goals:

  • to educate the general public about the redistricting process.
  • to create non-partisan redistricting maps that can be “benchmark[s] against which incumbent-drawn plans can be assessed.
  • to provide ready-made, legally defensible congressional plans for states that fail to craft their own redistricting plans.

As of this posting, students from the seminar have uploaded redistricting plans for New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and Utah, with more to come.

You can view a proposed state plan by clicking a pushpin on the site’s US map. On each state, you can view two versions of Congressional districts:  a map of current district lines, plus a summary of the demographics and voting history of each district; and a proposal for redrawn districts.

The plans for redistricting also include explanations of how they would conform with “applicable requirements of state and federal law, including the requirement of one-person, one-vote and the Voting Rights Act of 1965…plus an explanation of the principles that guided the plan’s construction.”

According to, these principles include:

  • Least change: adhering as closely as possible to the current congressional district lines
  • Good government: drawing compact districts based on political subdivision lines, such as counties and cities
  • Maximizing political competition by creating as many districts as possible that are evenly split between Republicans and Democrats
  • Proportional representation: producing districts that are likely to reflect the underlying partisan division in the state
  • Portfolio: attempting to harmonize two or more of the principles in the previous categories.

The site’s founders used Caliper Corporation’s Maptitude for Redistricting software to draw their plans. According to Caliper, this software is used by ” a supermajority of the state legislatures, political parties, and public interest groups.”

The program includes Census geography and data, one-button conversion of existing plans to the latest TIGER geography, new and enhanced reports, a state-of-the-art interface, open access to industry-standard file formats, interoperability with Google Maps and Google Earth, an updated manual, video tutorials, context-sensitive Help, web solutions, and more.

Citizen redistricting projects

Columbia Law School students are not alone in their efforts to democratize this year’s redistricting efforts. Newly available software programs make it possible for almost anyone to create new district maps. USA Today reports that:

  • Dave Bradlee, a 55-year-old Seattle software developer, created It’s sponsored by the liberal, but Bradlee says activists of all stripes use it. “It can put power in people’s hands,” Bradlee says. “People can see how the process works, so it’s a little less mysterious than it was 10 years ago.”
  • The Michigan Center for Election Law will host a competition open to any state resident. “The goal is to move beyond just having forums with citizens to talk about redistricting, but give citizens the tools to draw their own maps,” said Jocelyn Benson, the center’s director and a former Democratic candidate for Michigan secretary of State.
  • Michael McDonald, of George Mason University, has developed a political mapping program called District Builder, which is available to the public at

As states move ahead with the redistricting mandated by results of the 2010 Census, these efforts will be worth watching–as a way of comparing the gerrymadered plans of politically motivated redistricting commissions with those that might be created democratically, with public input, and based on principles other than power-grabbing.