GIS and Environmental Gerrymandering

Thanks to Simon in the Intro GIS course.

The term gerrymander was coined in 1812 after the governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry. The term applies to the process by which political districts are reorganized to weigh voting in favor of the dominant political party. In this way the opposition is concentrated into few districts or the minority strength is reduced and diluted over many districts. Gerrymandering is a commonly used legal practice in U.S. states to influence the voting outcome.

The spatial and attribute data supplied by users of GIS now makes the process of gerrymandering easier than ever. With a click of a mouse district boundaries can be remapped according to racial, household income or polling statistics, to name a few. Whereas GIS can be used to ensure fair redistricting, it also facilitates redistricting on a basis of political power.

Of particular concern to me as an environmentalist are the effects of gerrymandering on environmental policies. Gerrymandering not only redistributes voter opinion in unwieldy patterns over counties, but stretches districts over multiple distinct bioregions. How can voters adequately express their opinions on key environmental issues when they are clumped into the same district as other regions that have completely separate environmental concerns?

Without a formal template to assign districts, GIS provides politicians with a tool to perform increasingly sophisticated analyses on voting behavior and assign districts based on a desired outcome. One solution to this problem is to assign districts to watersheds or ecoregions. In this way GIS could be used to define districts based on bioregions rather than voting behavior. The outcome would be a reasonable redistricting system, where the inhabitants of each bioregion could express their opinions on related environmental issues.

For more information of gerrymandering, visit Fair Vote: Program for Representative Government.

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