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Demystifying Virginia's redistricting

By Mike DeBonis
Friday, March 18, 2011; 10:58 AM

This is how legislative redistricting goes: Everyone figures there has to be a better way, but it's hard to figure out a better way when the folks who need to pick a better way are the same folks who control and benefit from the way we have now.

Redistricting, like a lot of things in politics, is a process that could be mightily improved if politics weren't really part of it.

Alas, Virginia, like most states, lets its legislature draw its own district boundaries as well as congressional boundaries. This means that those who draw the boundaries have a pretty big conflict of interest: They can maintain their own prerogatives- the preservation of their own political prospects and those of their parties - while the public interest might demand other priorities.

For instance: Districts that aren't shaped like shattered chunks of volcanic rock held together by a chewing-gum thread. Or districts where the general election - and not just the ideologically driven party primaries - actually matters.

But there is hope: Power is now in the hands of the people. Two shrewd poli-sci professors have students crunching numbers and redrawing district lines using new open-source software that demystifies and democratizes the whole byzantine redistricting process.

Virginia, because of its off-year state elections and the need for federal approval of its voting plans, is one of the first states in the nation to do its redistricting based on the new census numbers. Its uncompetitive districts, gerrymandered to preserve incumbents and deepen partisan divides, can fairly be blamed for the fact that the General Assembly has been unable to muster much action on the transportation woes that have gridlocked many Virginia residents.

"We've gone so far in . . . protecting incumbents in both parties that it's been truly corrosive," said Norman J. Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and longtime political observer.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has made a well-intended if half-hearted attempt to improve the process by appointing an Independent Bipartisan Redistricting Commission, tasked with removing the politics from the line-drawing process. But the legislature has no incentive to accept any of the commission's recommendations, leaving the panel's members with only bluster: "The maps that we're hearing about that are being drawn behind closed doors are the ones that are irrelevant," one member said at a meeting Thursday.

Enter political scientists Michael McDonald of George Mason University and Quentin Kidd of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, who are leading a student contest to harness the new software and build the commonwealth a better election map.

Sixteen teams from 13 universities have participated in the Virginia Redistricting Competition. In total, 62 plans have been submitted; 40 have been drafted using the same considerations as McDonnell's commission. The winning plan, set to be announced Tuesday, will be sent to the commission for its consideration.

Ornstein is one of the judges. "I was really blown away by the care that went into some of these maps," he said. "It shows that you can do this."

And "you" really does mean you. "DistrictBuilder," open-source software developed by McDonald and Harvard University's Micah Altman, means anyone with the interest and a modicum of computer skills can build a serviceable map. A decade ago, politicians and political parties were typically the only outside parties with the wherewithal to buy the expensive software used to develop alternate maps. Not anymore.

"It isn't rocket science," Kidd said. "You don't have to have a PhD to do this and do it well."

The competition organizers don't have any illusions that the DIY maps are going to be adopted, at least not this year. When McDonald presented one map he developed - one that removed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and three other congressional incumbents from their current districts - he was all but laughed out of the room.

But just as the Internet and the democratization of technology have revolutionized the media and innumerable other businesses, they now threaten government as we know it. The competition, Kidd said, begins a process of education and awareness that will make it harder to defend the status quo.

"It doesn't make the process better by simply saying, 'Here's 7 million redistricting plans,' " he said. "What it does do, and what I hope it does, it makes redistricting less mysterious."

"Ten years from now, we might have completely bipartisan, independent redistricting because of the doors that were opened by this," he continued. "It's just increasingly hard for the legislature to say, 'No, we're the only people who should be doing this.' "

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