US Census 2010 data and redistricting

Posted on Posted in Census 2010, general, GeographyAwareness

In about a month, the US Census Bureau will be releasing the 2010 Census data to states so that they can begin the process of redistricting for the House of Representatives, as well as state legislatures that use those boundaries for election districts. This process happens every ten years, and is a vital part of the process of governing here in the US. Redistricting is also an incredibly controversial political process, as political parties and other groups at all levels of government have a keen interest in how groups of voters are aggregated into districts. In the past, redistricting has often led to conflicts and lawsuits, as those with the power to make the redistricting maps can translate that power into electoral victories. Many people are at least familiar with the notion of gerrymandering, which is a term that dates back to the early 19th century, and refers to the deliberate drawing of electoral boundaries to try to increase a candidate’s or party’s chances of winning an election. There is even a new documentary film coming out called Gerrymandering, which is an in-depth look at mapping electoral districts and its impact on recent elections.

I have to admit, I’m really excited (perhaps naively so) about the opportunities that all the advances in and increasing awareness of geospatial technologies and mapping can bring to the redistricting process for this census. For the first time, the census redistricting data will be released publicly on the US Census Bureau’s website almost simultaneously with its release to the various states, meaning that anyone can have access to the same information that states are using to draw these boundaries. The Census Bureau has also prepared a guide to the redistricting data, called Strength in Numbers: Your Guide to Census 2010 Redistricting Data from the US Census Bureau.

In addition, projects like the Public Mapping Project at George Mason University are developing tools like District Builder, that will allow users to work with redistricting data and draw their election district boundaries based on different criteria. My hope is that a process that was done behind the scenes and with almost no transparency in many cases will now take a step an open, accountable process that will allow every voter in the US to have as equal a voice as possible. I also think it’s a great opportunity for educators to utilize these datasets and geospatial tools to have their students get a chance to see how such a vital process works. In Virginia, for example, colleges are getting together and holding the Virginia College and University Legislative Redistricting Competition, where teams from each of the colleges will redraw Virginia’s election districts based on a set of criteria, with the winning team’s map in each category receiving $1000.