Writings and observations

OR: Video games for politicals

gerrymander

In Virginia, where state elections are held in odd-numbered years and so pressure is on right now for reapportionment, one of things that’s happening is a college game. A competition among teams of students from 13 schools (two of them fielding two teams): Who can take the newly emerging census data and craft the best Virginia congressional and state legislative districts?

Those maps, of course, may not be the basis for whatever Virginia finally adopts. But the process may be watched closely for what it says about some important aspects of reapportionment 2011: public involvement, and mapping software.

Twenty years ago reapportionment mapping software hardly existed in any form; a decade ago it was cumbersome and hard to use. But now, as George Mason University Professor Michael McDonald of the Public Mapping Project told the Oregon legislature’s reapportionment committees (meeting jointly today), these things are changing. The public involvement side, where Oregon long has been strong anyway, has been growing (from 37 states holding public hearings in 1991 to 42 a decade later). And the mapping software, as you might expect, has taken off.

Calling in from Virginia, he was able to offer a demonstration of one such, called DistrictBuilder and broadly available around the country. It allows for drag-n-drop rapportionment: You can start with a blank state or with existing districts, and move counties or census tracts around from one congressional or legislative district to the other – visually, with relevant numbers attached. You can see the population of the resulting districts, along with minority population estimates, a statistical estimate of just how compact the district is, whether it meets legal requirements, and so on. (You can play around with it to some extent as a guest.) A video game for the political junkie.

Oregon, which as the one legislative-remap state in the region, seems likely to be the first of the three Northwest states to jump into the reapportionment pools, seems likely to make a good deal of use of some of these tools. Many of them will be available on line, and the opportunity will be there for Oregonians to craft their own and – depending on the rules adopted – send them in to the legislature. With detailed statistical analysis to back them up.

And the impetus may be there, since the reapportionment committee (or committees – there’s no solid determination yet of how closely the House and Senate panels will work together) is planning to take the subject on the road around the state. Some scheduling is expected to be announced “soon.”

By the way: One person at Friday’s meeting noted that February 12 marks 199 years since the infamous “gerrymander” map was signed into law by Elbridge Gerry. Get out a glass of something and prepare to draw.

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