It doesn’t matter which political party is in control of state legislatures across the country. If politicians are gerrymandering the voting districts to help ensure their party stays in power, Common Cause is challenging with lawsuits and voter engagement efforts.
“For too long, politicians have been able to choose their voters, which is, of course, turning democracy completely on its head,” said Dan Vicuna, national redistricting manager with Common Cause. “Voters should be choosing politicians. The process itself is a very important one. Redistricting is an essential process to ensure fairness in our democracy. “
Technology is complicating the process. With so much data available — not only about voting records and election results but about demographics, consumer behavior and forecasting models — drawing districts after the 2020 Census will be a complicated conversation, Vicuna said.
He spoke with WDET’s Sandra Svoboda about tech and gerrymandering.
Click on the audio link above to listen to the edited conversation. A transcript of their discussion appears below.
Other WDET Work on Gerrymandering:
Sandra Svoboda: Why is gerrymandering an issue?
Dan Vicuna: Unfortunately in most states and in most cities and again at every level of government, the politicians themselves get to draw their own districts and they cannot help themselves from using that process to benefit themselves, to benefit their party in a way that doe a lot of harm to our democracy.
Svoboda: How so?
Vicuna: In the end, the ability to use big data and overlay that with very sophisticated voter data, computer software, that can be used to draw districts in which the outcome is very easily predetermined, not just for one election, two elections, but for the entirety of a decade. Our view is that when district are drawn with the needs of the politicians coming first as opposed to the needs of communities and people, it really turns democracy on its head. It should really be the public that’s able to hold politicians accountable for their actions and that’s made very difficult when districts are gerrymandered to pre-ordain the outcome.
Svoboda: So is technology the main factor in making the gerrymandering a problem or are there other forces at work in American society that are making redistricting a partisan and inherently more a political issue that it’s been in the past?
Vicuna: Gerrymandering has always been a problem. But you had sort of the olden days of gerrymandering where political operatives threw paper maps on the ground and made their best guesses as to what would be the most beneficial to their party. But we now know a lot about voter behavior, sort of adherence to how party labels can sort of dictate likely voter habits and we can overlay that with all sorts of sophisticated information about consumer data, demographic information, and overlaying that with sort of voting tendencies we can sort of pre-ordain the outcome of elections in a district far more efficiently, effectively than ever before.
Svoboda: Can that technology be used to actually make it a fairer process?
Vicuna: I think on the front end, there’s certainly, as long as I’ve been doing this work, if you go to a public forum, we inevitably get the question, “Why don’t we just have computers draw districts? There’s sophisticated technology.” But in the end, I think this has to be a people-driven process. Even if you set up a computer program to draw districts to make them as fair as possible, somebody still has to make decisions about what criteria is going to be prioritized. Communities of interest. Competitiveness. I think that is a really essential process to make sure that lines are drawn the most fairly and in a way that it really puts the voters first. However, I think there are ways on the back end where sort of some technology can be used to determine the likelihood that districts have been drawn fairly. We’ve seen in litigation, we’ve used expert witnesses ourselves that have been able to draw thousands and thousands of sample maps to demonstrate that the actual maps the legislature has drawn had to be done with partisan intent in mind.
Svoboda: For redistricting, why is this a policy that meets that people? How do people feel? How does it impact their lives?
Vicuna: If you have districts that are drawn unfairly where the outcome is pre-ordained, it’s nearly impossible to hold your legislators accountable for anything. (If) you want to punish them for some bad policymaking, it’s really difficult. So on any issue that you’re passionate about, gerrymandering makes it very difficult to make your voice heard and thrown the bums out.
Here’s other WDET work on the gerrymandering issue:
Talk Show Programming
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A Podcast Playlist – Become a Gerrymandering Expert Just By Listening
NPR’s Hidden Brain: Gerrymandering and You