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Knight-Ridder Wire

New computer technology makes redistricting more controversial than ever

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
April 6, 2001

Like the starting gun at the Oklahoma Land Rush, the Census pistol has sounded, and legislative redistricting is now seriously underway. Politicians and their proxies are busily redrawing the fundamental terrain of our political landscape.

Most incumbent line-drawers will be guided by no criteria other than two rather ambitious and self-serving goals: firstly, to guarantee their own re-election and that of friends and colleagues; and secondly, to garner a majority of legislative seats for their political party or faction.

In a moment of candor, the primary architect of Texas' last redistricting plan admitted that the process "is not one of kindness, it is not one of sharing. It is a power grab." A North Carolina state senator was even more blunt: "We are in the business of rigging elections."

Past redistrictings have never been models of fairness or exclamations of high democratic values, but this time several new factors have raised the stakes beyond anything previously experienced.

It will come as no surprise that, just like computers have impacted so many other areas of modern life, new computer technologies have dramatically altered the political game.

Politicians and their consultants now have at their disposal extremely sophisticated computer technology, combined with the latest Census, demographic and polling data, to precisely gerrymander their districts. The days of plastic Mylar maps, Elmer's glue, magic markers, trial and error jigsaws and cut and paste blueprints are over. The software is more accurate than ever before, and the politicians have greatly enhanced capacity to handpick their voters.

Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan says, "The technology is so good, you can draw districts with absolutely equal numbers of people in them, and yet create virtually any kind of political breakdown between the districts that you want." Adds Jeffrey Wice, an attorney for Impact 2000, the Democratic Party's redistricting program, "The ante has been upped immeasurably by changes in technology and the law. An excess of technology leads to a manic temptation where people try to connect the dots anyway they can."

One can credibly argue that most of us no longer choose our representatives--instead, the politicians choose us. Every decade when the district lines are re-drawn, winners and losers will be decided for most legislative districts. The choice of voters for the remainder of the decade will be simply to ratify the selections made for them by the redistricting politicians. For all the talk of a stolen election in 2000, we are about to see the robbery of millions of Americans' chances to elect a Member of Congress or state legislator they like -- and yet hardly anyone but the political insiders is paying attention.

One virtue to the new redisctricting technologies is that they are now relatively inexpensive. That means that virtually any special interest or lobby with an interest in how districts are drawn can create their own set of maps and push for the gerrymander that suits them. Unquestionably, there will be many cooks in the kitchen during this round of redistricting. Unfortunately, few will speak for the general public interest in creating plans that represent all of us.

The game will be played much differently in 2001-2 than ever before, and these new redistricting technologies are crucial to the new paradigm. Success breeds success, and the practices perfected by redistricting practitioners have become the steroids of politics--once one side is using them and gains a competitive edge, you don't dare not use them. The new techniques and technologies are too powerful to ignore, and irresistible to those salivating to win.

With the nation so evenly divided between the two major parties, the current round of redistricting is bound to be one of the messiest ever.

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