This article first appeared in GIS User here.
Republican mapmakers gained what they perceived to be a huge victory following their landslide state election wins in 2010 through gerrymandering and redistricting dozens of states, so much so that their victory will probably last a decade or more.
“There is a real irony with GIS. The technology theoretically permits states to consider a vast amount of information during the redistricting process, including things like ‘communities of interest,’” says Benjamin Forest, an associate professor of geography at Dartmouth. “Unfortunately, a concept like ‘community of interest’ is difficult to quantify. Texas, for example, made a genuine attempt to represent ‘communities of interest’ using GIS, but this information ultimately had little impact on the state’s redistricting plans. Even if GIS provides somewhat better data on ‘communities of interest’, it also contains much, much more precise partisan and demographic information.”
Forest did not say this in 2010. He made the statement five years earlier, in October of 2005 in an article warning of the misuse of mapping in political redistricting. “The growing power of GIS technology has increased the potential for abusive gerrymandering,” he continued. “On one hand, the technology has been very useful for voting rights enforcement, and particularly for creating districts with African American or Hispanic majorities, but GIS also increases the potential for sophisticated gerrymandering. In most states, legislatures control redistricting, and they typically use it for partisan advantage and for incumbent protection. The ability to evaluate and predict voting behavior and to then create districts based on these analyses can give political parties more control over election results.”
It does. The mastermind behind REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project) Chris Jankowski former president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, talked with Rachel Maddow about the plan in March of 2015. It involved a concerted effort to win state legislatures for greater control of redistricting in 2010.
The strategy was brilliant. Spend a minimal amount of money to win key races, and then put the right people in place who controlled how voting district lines were drawn. These Republicans of course did not draw the lines fairly as GIS can enable them to do. Instead, they drew them to establish and hold a Republican advantage.
It Worked Too Well
A group of representatives known as the House Freedom Caucus was elected between the Tea Party wave of 2010, and the Republican friendlier districts from the REDMAP project in 2012 and 2014. This was the group John Boehner could not control: the group that wanted to attach the defunding of Obamacare to a government shutdown, and who later called for his resignation as Speaker of the House.
All of this was a result of the way maps were being drawn around the country. The Republicans had established control of the political landscape, but not really. Their plan opened the door for extremists to replace moderate Democrats who worked across the aisle. The new breed were less interested in compromise than gun control and same-sex marriage. The party was out of control.
The door was wide open for Donald Trump to enter the picture, the leader of this new radical form of Republicans. The maps drawn by REDMAP make it quite likely the House of Representatives will remain in Republican hands in 2016.
It doesn’t stop there. Democrats plan to spend horrendous amounts of money on a response in 2020, but Republicans have the upper hand, and already have started planning for REDMAP 2020.
Mapping is becoming an increasingly powerful political tool. It can be used to create fair maps of equal demographics, or it can be manipulated by either party.
Polls no longer play the role they once did, even though the statistics drawn from them are frequently quoted. They often have to be conducted via landline phones, something many households don’t even have any more. Polling science has largely come under question, and needs to be revised. “The reality is that even slight differences in how questions are asked in polls can affect responses. Additionally, pollsters often go to great lengths to identify “likely voters.” After all, if a poll shows the preferences of people who end up not voting, the poll can be misleading,” says an article from George Washington University on How Polling Helps Candidates get Elected.
However, as mapping gets more sophisticated, and data becomes more real time, polls may pass out of common use as social mapping and artificial intelligence fueled with big data creates predictive programs that more accurately anticipate voter behavior.
This may mean that every time there is a census, each party will vie not for national office, but for state legislatures where they can redraw the lines that affect how much your vote really counts.
Broken, but Fixable
Just before he left office in 1988, Ronald Reagan called attention to the danger of allowing politicians to draw their own maps and essentially pick their own voters. “Some people are going to erupt when I say it, but I think maybe our Founding Fathers made something of a mistake in the method of reapportionment,” he said. “I think that this is a great conflict of interest.” He promoted a plan for a bipartisan citizens’ committee of top-ranking citizens to handle redistricting in each state.
It didn’t happen then. And it certainly did not happen in 2010. As mapping gets more accurate and sophisticated these battles may get more difficult. However, GIS has the power to inform those creating voting districts about true equality and arranging a wide and equal demographic.
We as voters, as GIS technicians, simply need to hold those making those decisions accountable.