Redistricting, Gerrymandering, and the role of GIS

The periodic redrawing of electoral district boundaries through the process of “redistricting” is necessary in a representational democracy with changing population distributions and compositions. In the redistricting process electoral districts are manipulated to achieve fair representation and competitiveness in elections. For example, redistricting can ensure that minority communities of interest receive fair representation through the creation of districts where these communities have a local majority. However redistricting can also be used maliciously, for example to generate electoral outcomes that favour one political party over another. The process of intentionally manipulating electoral district boundaries, through the creation of unusually shaped districts to produce desired electoral outcomes is known as “gerrymandering”. Historically gerrymandering has been difficult to prove; however, the widespread development of GIS in the 1990s fundamentally changed the redistricting process and generated hope of a solution to the problem of gerrymandering. It was initially thought that this technology would increase transparency, making gerrymandering easier to distinguish and prevent. While GIS has revolutionized the process of redistricting, producing many benefits, it has not yet provided a solution to gerrymandering. According to some, GIS has exacerbated the problem.

GIS enables those who are adept to manipulate, analyze, and cartographically display spatially-referenced population data with greater ease than ever before and has certainly made redistricting far less labour intensive. This has made the process of redistricting more open to citizens and various interest groups. The ability to display and represent vast amounts of information has made the identification and location of communities of interest infinitely easier. GIS has also been effectively used to monitor and enforce voting laws. For example in the United States the Department of Justice has used GIS to enforce the Voting Rights Act, helping to democratize political participation. However some argue that it is the political parties who have benefited most from GIS technology. Through GIS, political parties have gained the ability to generate and compare thousands of gerrymanders very quickly, while the use of analytical GIS techniques allows parties to predict electoral outcomes with increasing precision. The end result being that political parties are now able to produce increasingly sophisticated gerrymanders.

GIS has not increased our ability to identify precisely what a gerrymander is and when one occurs. This is largely due to the fact that the definition of gerrymandering remains ambiguous. GIS may be able to analyze spatially-referenced data, helping us to identify and locate communities of interest; however it cannot tell us how to make socially acceptable redistricting decisions regarding the community. Ultimately the decision as to whether a community should be concentrated in a single electoral district or dispersed through many districts, and what constitutes an unusually shaped district, is a value-based judgment made by people. Therefore, although GIS has undoubtedly transformed the process of redistricting and facilitated desirable analyzes, it has not provided a solution to the subjective process of defining and identifying gerrymandering.

Eagles, M., Katz, R.S., Mark, D. 2000. “Controversies in political redistricting: GIS, geography, and society”. Political Geography. 19 2, pp. 135-139

Forest, B. 2005. The changing demographic, legal, and technological contexts of political representation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America.

From CE, Intro to GIS

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