Website Demystifies Redistricting - Pacific Standard

Website Demystifies Redistricting

One Loyola Law School educator's redistricting website offers a melting pot of useful information about the practice for all Americans.
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The once-a-decade reshuffling mandated by the Constitution now has a comprehensive source that helps to explain its complex details.

Justin Levitt, an expert on election law and a professor at Los Angeles’ Loyola Law School has launched All About Redistricting, an interactive website that helps the average person understand all the intricacies of redistricting. With redistricting being a hot topic, and its fairness routinely questioned, the launch of Levitt’s website is particularly timely.

The site offers a state-by-state guide that explains individual rules, regulations and practices, and continually updates with breaking redistricting news.

All About Redistricting starts, though, with some history. In Colonial times, redistricting arose because towns and counties had a set number of representatives, but those areas did not always grow proportionally.

Besides offering a good history lesson, Levitt gets creative with his use of FairVote’s Redistricting Wheel. (Credit for the wheel goes to Proportional Representation Society of Australia, developed by FairVote and Matthew Pierce.) The wheel allows visitors to the website to click buttons that represent different starting points for redistricting an area. The wheel is divided into circles and squares, and depending on which button is chosen, one or the other ends up the winner. This is representative of how shifting starting points can easily change the political representation of an area.

Redistricting, not surprisingly, drums up a lot of conflict between opposing sides. This often results in them battling it out in court, so Levitt includes relevant information about court cases that are pending or already resolved. Many of the cases are complaints about unequal population of different districts in a state. Levitt gives the public a look into the legal complexities of redistricting and provides up-to-date information on the results of the cases.

As a Colorado native, I wanted to see what insight the website would give me into the redistricting process of my home state. I found out that while congressional lines are drawn by the state Legislature, an 11-person committee selected jointly by legislative leaders, the governor and the chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court draws the legislative lines. Colorado hasn’t fully joined the ranks of states that take redistricting completely out of the hands of politicians.

The site provided a link to the Colorado redistricting homepage and had a table that broke down political redistricting control of Republicans versus Democrats. Links labeled congressional lines and legislative lines directed me to a map of America that used a color-coded system to symbolize party control in relation to redistricting. Without knowing much about Colorado’s redistricting laws and procedures, I left with a knowledge of the basics.

Since redistricting can be frustrating for the public with its gerrymanders and back-room deals, I decided to find out what was being done to address these issues.

I used Levitt’s site to look up ideas for reform. It explains the role of independent commissions — committees made up of individuals not appointed by legislators — to draw district lines in an attempt to reduce gerrymandering. Unlike my home state, Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana and Washington currently use this technique.

“For better or worse, the new California redistricting system goes to previously unheard-of lengths to take the drawing of state legislative district lines out of the hands of politicians and political professionals who usually redistrict,” former editor John Mecklin wrote in Miller-McCune magazine last year. “A commission of 14 citizens, being set up by the state auditor, will draw the lines.”

California’s radical approach has, if nothing else, breathed new life into public awareness of redistricting and Levitt’s website stands to do the same.

Besides independent commissions, Levitt explores other elements of possible reform like promoting transparency, focusing on communities, using super-districts and controlling prison gerrymandering.

Prison gerrymandering has also involved counting prisoners as citizens of the area in which they are incarcerated. This gives a distorted perception of just exactly who is being represented in both the receiving district and some districts that generate exceptional numbers of convicts. (Last year, Miller-McCune.com took a swing at explaining the steps being taken to eliminate the problem in New York.)

Besides New York, Levitt adds that Delaware, Maryland and many local governments are passing legislation to reconcile the issue. Levitt gives a succinct overview for each concept of reform, explaining what they would entail and linking to related websites that could provide more information.

The site also has a page that links to various resources that can offer further information on redistricting like the general process, criteria, political ramifications and state websites. Levitt’s information gives a glimpse into a bogged-down process and manages to make it a little lighter, even interesting, and I left the site understanding the jagged lines and heated debates a little better.

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