How can the public engage?
In each state or local jurisdiction, different entities are officially in charge of drawing district maps. But no matter where you are, there are steps you can take to influence the process.
Identify local communities. In several states, state law requires consideration of "communities of interest"; in most other states, these communities are at least in the background when the lines are drawn. Communities of interest are notoriously difficult to identify concretely -- there is no one road map that redistricting entities can buy to see where communities of interest are located. This is where the public comes in. Members of local communities can assist those in charge of the process by mapping out the boundaries of local communities that should be kept together within a district. Or, if a sizable community should be split in order to influence a larger number of representatives, members of that community can show the most appropriate places where the community might be split. Through community forums and town meetings, and with the assistance of nonprofit organizations that serve the local community, members of the public can agree on the boundaries of their own communities of interest, with technology no more sophisticated than a road map and a permanent marker.
Demand and attend hearings. In many states, public hearings connected to the redistricting process are underway; cities and counties that will redraw their own district lines will likely be holding hearings momentarily. Increasingly, jurisdictions with a redistricting website will list hearing schedules on that site (the state pages on this site lists each state's main website, and where possible, the schedule of state-level hearings). Many community organizations and nonprofits are coordinating attendance at these hearings, to make sure that members of the communities they serve are heard in the redistricting process. The more people who make their voices heard about the lines that would serve their needs, the more likely it is that districts eventually follow those lines.
Present community maps to those who draw the lines. Within the public hearings, and sometimes also in a separate submission process, it may be possible to present potential maps to the redistricting body. In most states, these don't have to be complete maps of the entire state -- they can be relatively small maps of individual community boundaries as well. Accompanying petitions can show numerical support for the districts or boundaries presented. Those who are drawing the lines often have to develop multiple maps in a relatively short period of time; maps (particularly maps of local communities submitted by members of the local public) may serve as helpful reference points. And in the event that the redistricting process ends up in litigation, courts may look to these maps for guidance as well. These maps can be simple lines on pen and paper. For those that wish to use technology as an aid, there are several online tools that may be helpful as well.
Educate the media. Many media outlets -- particularly print and web publications -- will be very interested in the redistricting process as it unfolds. In the past, most have devoted disproportionate time and space to the partisan political impact of the final maps, focused on particular incumbents. But the redistricting process involves far more than that. Interested members of the public have an opportunity to educate their local media, through comments or op-eds or letters to the editor, about the elements of redistricting that matter most to them, including the impact of redistricting on the communities that members of the public care about most.
Ask questions. Though redistricting is a complex endeavor, there are a few questions that members of the public can ask to gauge the extent to which the redistricting process is working for them.
- Is the data used to draw the lines publicly available?
- Are there hearings before the maps are first made public, to hear from constituents about community boundaries that would yield better representation? Is input from those hearings incorporated in the draft maps?
- Is there a mechanism to get feedback about problems after draft maps are produced?
- Is the public invited to submit full or partial plans, or to comment on drafts?
- Do the decisionmakers meet in public to work through their redistricting decisions?
- Is there any limit on private conversations about plans, particularly with incumbents?
- Does the redistricting body attempt to explain why they drew the districts they did?
- Will the people who draw the lines run for office in the districts they draw?
- Do the people who draw the lines reasonably reflect the diversity of the jurisdiction, to account for different views on where the lines should be drawn?
- Does the redistricting body have a reasonable partisan balance, or a voting rule designed to help create compromise?
- Has a sizable minority population been "cracked" or "packed"?
- If communities and/or neighborhoods were cut apart or kept together, is there a sensible reason?
- Was a district carved around an incumbent or challenger's house? Was territory shifted in a way that makes it much more difficult for a candidate to win an election, and if so, does that territory shift make sense for another reason?
- Given the past political preferences of voters within each district, do the districts that give a substantial advantage to one party or another reasonably reflect the overall political balance of the state?