Rebecca Theobald, assistant research professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, poses for a portrait outside her home on April 6, 2021. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)
In the United States, congressional and legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years to take into account population growth and demographic changes. The new boundaries ultimately determine how communities are represented at the local, state and national levels.
For decades, discussions around the wonky, politically-charged and complicated redistricting process have been dominated by politicians, mathematicians and geographers. But technological advances in the digital mapping applications are making the once-in-a-decade process significantly more accessible.
Rebecca Theobald, an assistant research professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, is on a mission to empower as many people as possible to draw their own political maps to better understand the process and help inform the work of the newly formed Colorado independent legislative and congressional redistricting commissions.
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Colorado voters implemented two amendments — Y and Z — in 2018 that created the commissions that are tasked with redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative maps with an eye towards fairness and minimizing the potential for gerrymandering. Per law, the commissions are required to host at least 21 public meetings around the state. Due to COVID, those meetings could occur virtually. Members of the public are encouraged to submit public comments to the commission’s website and will soon be able to submit their own maps for consideration.
The entire process remains in limbo because Colorado won’t be receiving the census data necessary for redistricting until Sept. 30 — six months past the usual release date and weeks after Colorado’s new maps are due to the state’s Supreme Court. But for now, the commissions are pushing forward as planned.
Newsline reporter Moe Clark spoke with Theobald this week about how the process has changed over the last decade, how people can best participate in the process, and what’s the criteria for making a “good” map.
Q: How has the redistricting process changed over the last decade?
What really happened between 2011 and 2021 is that open source online mapping tools became available to anybody who has a computer. And that’s what’s really exciting. People now are able to sit down and create their own maps using tools that were previously only available to people in locked rooms or to people who could pay money for them.
We’re to the point where people on the street are talking about this, not just academics, or lawyers, or people who are kind of wonky about redistricting. That’s pretty cool, in my opinion.
Q: What is legally required in a map? What questions are you asking when you’re creating a map?
So, you have to start with an equal population for all the districts. And then you have to make sure that you are following the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting. And then, continuity, compactness and competitiveness.
But then you start saying, all right, what do we decide is more important, to keep counties and municipalities together? Do we focus on keeping communities of interest together? Where do we start drawing the line? How are your intentions thwarted by geography?
Q: Could you talk about what a community of interest is?
So, examples of communities of interest include communities that are connected, economically, such as ski resorts or ranching, or defense contractors.
They can also include geographic areas. So for instance, all of the communities in a particular watershed would be very interested in the quality and quantity of that water community. So they would be a community of interest.
If there is a particular ethnic or racial heritage of a group. If we think of, for instance, the Five Points community of Denver, that would be considered a community of interest. The historic communities in the San Luis Valley would be a community of interest. Things like that.
Q: Your students recently drew their own redistricting maps. What did you hope they learned from the exercise?
So the course is called “Spaces of Political Geography,” and we look at geography through a variety of different scales. So world, national, regional and local. We also look at it through a variety of topics. So far we’ve talked about changing climate, and we look at other historical, political and geography issues. I really am trying to help them think about these practical aspects of how policies and history and geography all affect the workings of the government.
They all admitted that it took a lot of time, and that they were not necessarily successful in achieving all of their objectives. But they also all agreed that it was a really valuable learning process.
Somebody said this assignment took diligence and objectivity. Another said that they found the project to be frustrating and time intensive and in no way allowed for hasty decisions. Another said that “even if one thinks they have them all figured out, there is always another factor that could be added.”
I wanted them to understand those trade-offs. Because you can have a list of things that you want to be a priority, but it’s a lot more challenging in practice.
Q: You’ve said the more maps that are drawn by members of the community, the better. Why?
First reason for more maps is that it means that more people are invested in the process, and also more prepared to discuss why they would find a map unfair. Every map has a point of view. So, the more maps and the more perspectives the merrier.
It just allows for more sophisticated conversation if you propose a map and then explain why you think it’s fair. You can say, this is the best competitive map that I can find. Or this is the best map that keeps counties and municipalities together. Or this is the map that provides the greatest voice for minority communities. Because those are not going to be the same kind of maps. Those maps look very different.
If you, the map creator, have proposed those and the maps are fair — they’re not squiggly or gerrymandered — then you’re saying, this is the best we can do if this is the criteria in Colorado. Then the commission will be able to have a discussion about that.
The people of the state will also have a sense of how difficult it is to create those maps and will enable us to have a more complete discussion and share slightly different maps that maybe compromise different things. You don’t really see how those compromises play out until you actually make the map. That is why it’s so crucial.
Q: What’s the most important part of this whole independent redistricting process?
Transparency is key. There is no point in doing this activity with independent commissions unless they are going to be transparent and back up their ideas and decisions. Although the commission is independent, each member of the commission comes with their own set of knowledge and biases.
Having a transparent redistricting process is the basis for people to feel that their representatives are acknowledging their concerns, their needs and their desires for how policies are made and how funds are distributed.
The one piece of advice I would give them is to not leave the map making process solely to the staff on the commission. You do not have to, as a commissioner, create your own map and propose it. That’s not your job. But if you have not gone through the process yourself to understand it, then you will be ill-prepared to comment on and respond to feedback.
I also think it is also extremely important that frankly they get in their cars and go to these different locations they are trying to map out. Colorado is a huge state, with a significant amount of diversity and until you have driven its four corners, you really do not have a good sense of that.
Q: If someone wants to draw their own redistricting maps, where should they start?
Number one, don’t be intimidated!
If you are somebody who has been following this redistricting discussion and you feel that you have enough information and you are ready to draw your own map, then I would say you should go to Districtr.org or District Builder or Dave’s Redistricting. Any of those sites will guide you through this process.
If you’re just starting to be interested in redistricting, and all you know is the word gerrymandering, then take a step back, look at the historical census data, and look at amendment Y and Z that created the redistricting commission to better understand the redistricting criteria. I’d also suggest using representable.org to create your community of interest, and then move to using geospatial technology.
To learn more about redistricting processes across the country, visit GeoCivics.
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