Census technology changes backroom politics to mouse-driven activism for redistricting

By Jennifer KerrAssociated Press Writer
Monday March 19, 2001

OAKLAND – In the upstairs room of a mission-style library, two dozen men and women lean over giant maps of the East Bay and consult color-coded computer printouts showing where Hispanics, blacks, Asians, Republicans and Democrats live. 

Wielding markers and calculators, they argue about what areas should be in or out of a new state Assembly district — Alameda, Piedmont, northern San Leandro or western Oakland. 

This strange exercise is a workshop designed to show community groups how ordinary people, with the help of the new technology, can get involved in that most political of processes — redistricting. 

The redrawing of government election districts every 10 years to reflect population changes has always been the ultimate arcane smoke-filled-room political activity. Political bosses kept their plans secret and the public rarely knew what was going on until the deal was done. 

This year, technology means groups with computer smarts can use the census figures being released this month to participate in the redistricting process. That process will determine which politicians will make decisions for the next decade on issues ranging from school funding to pothole filling. 

Politicians used computers to do redistricting in 1981 and 1991, but machines and database software used to analyze the complex information were much more expensive, difficult to use and essentially inaccessible to the general public, unless they went through a big university. 

The Internet and the widespread availability of powerful computers and software have changed everything. 

“We feel that technology is bringing redistricting all the way down to the grass roots now,” says Zachary Gonzalez, redistricting coordinator for the Willie C. Velasquez Institute, a think tank based in Los Angeles and San Antonio, Texas, that focuses on Latino election issues. “With the new software, it’s as simple as pointing and clicking.” 

The Velasquez Institute joined with Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in a redistricting alliance to conduct the Oakland workshop and 19 others around the state. 

The alliance is also planning two statewide conferences next month. One, in Sacramento, will bring together Latino community leaders to train them in the legal and computer aspects of redistricting. The second, in Los Angeles, is being cosponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center to discuss redistricting issues affecting all minority groups. 

In addition, MALDEF, the NAACP-LDF and the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (an affiliate of APALC) wrote a community redistricting guide that is available both in book form and online. 

The lines that will be redrawn over the next year include everything from U.S. congressional and state legislative districts down to local government bodies such as city councils and school boards. The state Legislature does the congressional and legislative districts, while local bodies generally do their own lines. 

Redistricting “is the ultimate basic test of political power and one our communities have to play hard in,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Velasquez Institute. 

“Defining a district determines what kind of people can run and win in a district,” he says. Redistricting “is the best opportunity to expand representation” and give communities “a bigger, better, broader voice in governance.” 

Anyone with Internet access and the right software can use the Statewide Database at the University of California, Berkeley, to look at the same Census 2000 and voter information that the politicians will be using — racial, ethnic, income and party registration breakdowns down to the block level. 

Statewide Database staff will help the general public, scholars and politicians learn how to use the data, but will not actually draw redistricting maps, says director Karin MacDonald. 

However, groups such as the alliance plan to produce their own model plans to present to the Legislature and local bodies. When lawmakers release their plans, the groups will quickly analyze and critique them — and go to court if they feel the plans are unfair. 

They will use the same software program being used by the Legislature and many local governments, Maptitude for Redistricting, which costs about $3,500, said Zachary Gonzalez. 

The alliance is also offering “remote redistricting sessions” to make it even easier for small community groups to know what’s going on with their own congressional, legislative and local government lines. 

Community groups will be able to connect by phone lines with the main MALDEF computer and draw district lines on the Maptitude program sitting on the MALDEF computer, all for the cost of the phone call, said Zachary Gonzalez. 

Antonio Gonzalez says the Hispanic alliance will be working with the NAACP, the APALC and Native American groups to see how their analyses agree and try to resolve differences that could hurt all their efforts. 

“If we want to make an impact as minorities in this area, we have to work together,” agreed Arnold Fong of the Organization of Alameda Asians, a participant at the Oakland workshop. 

Ultimately, all this high-tech knowledge means that the politicians drawing the lines are likely to face greater scrutiny this year right down to the very smallest local boards. 

Ignacio De La Fuente, president of the Oakland City Council, told the workshop that the locally elected boards that run the Bay Area Rapid Transit and AC Transit, the basic transportation for millions in the East Bay, have never had Latinos elected to them. 

Latinos may have the numbers, he said, “but if we don’t have political representation at every level, it doesn’t mean a damn thing.” 


Facts about California’s redistricting process 


— What is redistricting? Taking the latest census figures and redrawing boundaries of electoral districts within a state — U.S. congressional, state legislative, county supervisor, city council, local school board and other districts. 

— When is it done and why? Every 10 years, right after the census, to reflect shifts in population and make sure districts each have about the same number of people. 

— Who does it? The state Legislature does congressional, legislative and Board of Equalization districts and the governor must sign the plans. Local government bodies do their own local districts. 

— When will it be done? The Legislature will be doing it next summer, before it adjourns on Sept. 14. Local bodies have different deadlines. 

— How many state districts are there? California’s congressional delegation is increasing from 52 to 53 because the state gained population. The Legislature’s districts remain 40 for the Senate and 80 for the Assembly. 

— Why should I care? The district boundaries will help determine which candidates will be running for those offices for the next decade. You want to be able to vote for representatives who share your interests on important issues ranging from income taxes and school funding to street lights and new playgrounds. 

— What are the rules? The most important is “one person, one vote,” meaning districts must have about the same population. Federal law also forbids giving members of a racial or ethnic group less of a chance of electing candidates of their choice. This means such groups cannot either be split thinly among lots of districts or packed into a small number of districts, either way diluting their voting strength. District drawers should also attempt to make them appear compact and contiguous, respect political boundaries (such as city lines), preserve similar communities and protect incumbents. 

— What is “gerrymandering”? A very weirdly shaped district drawn to meet political interests, such as maximizing voters of one party. The name comes from an 1812 redistricting law signed by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry that included strange salamander-shaped districts that were nicknamed “gerrymanders.”