Crooked lines: How technology, data have changed political boundaries

Gerrymandering and the modern age - how political lines are drawn

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – With gerrymandering being one of the highest-profile cases to go before the U.S. Supreme Court this session , the issue has taken center stage as lawmakers prepare for another round of redistricting based off the 2020 census.

Lawmakers across the country re-draw political district boundaries every decade, but gerrymandering happens when those lines are drawn to give themselves an unfair advantage.

Redistricting is a normal and important element of U.S. government, but the line between redistricting and gerrymandering can be fuzzy. With technology drastically improving mapping software and the data behind it, there are more tools to effectively gerrymander districts than ever before.

“Redistricting has always been a controversial issue because it’s political,” said Dr. Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “You really have to go back, some of the odd-shaped districts are the result of, actually, an order of the U.S. Supreme Court years ago.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 called for protecting minority rights by ensuring equal opportunity for minorities to elect a candidate of their choice.

“Technology has clearly made redistricting a much more sophisticated and also, I might add, controversial topic,” said MacManus. “Technology and big data, as we call it these days, has been a real asset to fine tuning and micro targeting the drawing of districts.”

Here's MacManus further explaining how gerrymandering became what it is today:

Counting votes

The technology is to a point where votes can be predicted, said 10News political analyst Lars Hafner.

“What they were able to do in that process was to use computer programs to actually zero in on districts, then zero in on communities, then neighborhoods within those communities, down to specific households," he said. “If they’re Republican they want to create more Republican seats, if it’s a Democratic-led process they want to create more Democratic seats. Because they want majorities in the legislatures, in Congress and even on county commissions and city councils.”

Here's Hafner further explaining how gerrymandering impacts politics on every level:

Mike Gordon, a GIS analyst for a global commercial real estate company, said the process can be taken a step further.

“We can get down to the exact house or block or street,” said Gordon, who uses the same technology and data to analyze commercial real estate that politicians use to analyze district demographics.

Here's Gordon further explaining how advanced the technology has become: 

Ballot box confusion?

MacManus, the USF political science professor, said those who are against micro-redistricting say it can confuse voters.

“A neighbor across the street from you could be in a different congressional district than you are,” she said. “The whole system is a nightmare for election officials and it’s a heyday for the political parties who are very adept at knowing how to draw lines that benefit them.”

MacManus believes the Supreme Courts’ decision on their gerrymandering case will have a sweeping impact all over the country.

“It is, I guarantee you, going to be the most-watched case before the Supreme Court this session,” she said. “Time is of the urgency because, obviously, the next census is only a few years away and then, after that, every state, every county, every whatever has to redistrict. And if the standards aren’t clear it’s going to mean that the courts are going to be clogged, massively, by redistricting cases.”

Phil Buck is a reporter with 10News WTSP. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. You can also email him at pbuck@wtsp.com.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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