Draw the Line and Start Meaningful Dialogue With Redistricting

Posted on 05/20/2011

By Leah Rush

Read the story at Huffington Post Chicago

Illinois. Indiana. Michigan. Minnesota. Ohio. Wisconsin. Political news coming out of these Midwest states has dominated recent national headlines — everything from throngs of demonstrators in state capitol buildings to absent legislators avoiding votes to presidential hopefuls to a big-haired, former governor on trial (again).

Beyond the headlines lies the story of a region hard hit by the recession, with sustained high unemployment rates and massive state budget deficits. Add slowing population growth leading to a loss of representation in Congress as shown by the recent rollout of U.S. census figures, and we have a set of mighty hurdles to overcome.

These realities present real threats. They also create unique opportunities. Yes, Midwesterners could wind up fighting each other and be left more divided than ever. Or, we can begin the process of facing our challenges with an honest, open, civil discourse between the people and our elected leaders.

One way to start this conversation — and help rebuild trust between the people and elected officials — is to have a meaningful exchange around a cornerstone of our democracy: the drawing of electoral lines, a process known as redistricting.

Most states put the power to draw district lines for Congress members and state legislators solely in the hands of the state legislature. This power has historically been abused for political gain by whichever party happens to have more sway during the few months every 10 years when districts are drawn. The result is manipulated lines and manipulated voters as elected officials effectively “choose” their constituents — rather than the other way around.

If we can lift the veil of secrecy that typically enshrouds the redistricting process, we can kick-start a more meaningful dialogue.

That is why an alliance of 27 civic engagement organizations that make up the Midwest Democracy Network launched the “Draw the Line” campaign to push for increased public participation, true transparency and protection of minority voting rights in the creation of new political maps. Our aim: ensure communities have a strong voice in this critical process.

Coalitions in each state are asking elected officials to promote and participate in a real conversation with the people they represent about how districts are drawn in 2011 and 2012. Four of the top recommendations from our state coalitions include:

  • Hold Public Hearings: The common practice has been to hold public hearings in advance of drawing maps to ostensibly gather input from communities, but then maps are proposed behind closed doors and quickly approved. Legislatures and redistricting officials must hold hearings before and after the maps are drawn in advance of final approval. No map should be implemented without further public input. Notice of public hearings should be provided well in advance of the hearing date. Hearings should be held across the state, at least one in each current congressional district.
  • Provide Explanation: We often ask math students to show their work and explain how they arrived at a result. To support meaningful dialogue at public hearings, legislatures and redistricting officials must provide both visual maps of each proposed plan and a written explanation of how and why they arrived at each district.
  • Make Data Available: The redistricting process requires census data reporting how many people live where, election data detailing voting preferences in each area, and geographic data describing existing and proposed districts. Legislatures and redistricting officials should provide easy public access to the data that inform redistricting decisions, which states often put together for “official” — but not necessarily public — use at taxpayer expense.
  • Set Up a Website: A regularly updated website will provide a platform for the public to find out about existing data, important dates and events, proposed maps, and a record of comments at previous hearings.

Because most states do not provide these resources already, the Draw the Line campaign provides tools to facilitate the public’s engagement with this process, from educational materials developed by the Brennan Center for Justice to the Public Mapping Project’s District Builder web-based map-drawing software developed by a George Mason University/Harvard University partnership. These resources and more are easily accessed at www.drawthelinemidwest.org.

Now more than ever we need elected officials responsive — and courageous — enough to transform urgent challenges into opportunities. The redistricting process presents us with a chance to restore to politics a sense of community and place that creates a more open, honest and civil dialogue between the people and our elected officials. We ask legislators, redistricting officials and members of the public to draw the line and start this conversation with redistricting.

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