SXSW Panel Asks, Will Gerrymandering Get Worse Before It Gets Better?

Changing the districting narrative from computers to communities

Michael Li (l) and Michael McDonald (photo by John Anderson)

“A decade ago, the words ‘gerrymandering’ or ‘apportionment’ didn’t resonate with voters,” began Michael Li. “That has totally changed in the last few years. ‘Gerrymandering’ does move voters in a big way.” A nearly full Hilton meeting room seemed to confirm his judgment.

Li, of the Brennan Center for Justice, and Michael McDonald of the University of Florida and the Public Mapping Project, paired up for a presentation on the current state of legislative and congressional redistricting, and in tandem declared the prospects “mixed.” Each pointed to continuing problems with racial and partisan gerrymandering – increasingly overlapping categories – and each indicated that greater citizen education and participation can push back against one-party dominions over drawing electoral lines.

Li began by pointing out that the problem precedes Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts politician for whom the process of imbalanced electoral districts is named. In fact, Patrick Henry first attempted to draw his political enemy James Madison out of a favorable district, but "Henry-ism" or “Henry-mander” never quite caught on. Li’s point was that districting controversies have a very long history – and we have reason to believe they will get worse.

That’s partly because of increasing political polarization – dominant parties in any state have real incentives to weaken their institutional opponents – and the computer technology that has made redistricting and therefore gerrymandering easier is steadily more refined. “There is a lot of reason to be concerned,” said Li, as the programming becomes increasingly sophisticated. Later, he and McDonald mentioned “Facebook-type” personal data as having provided extremely specific “propensity” data at the neighborhood and even individual voter level, and is increasingly being used to draw radically precise maps.

“Humans program computers, and they impose their value systems on the process of drawing the maps.”

Li noted that Austin and Travis County are somewhat exceptions to the increasing national alignment of race and party, but that alignment has made it easier for map drawers to use race as a proxy for party – and then to tell the courts that the resulting maps only reflect partisan division, not racial discrimination. Recent court cases suggest that the courts – even perhaps the Supreme Court – might be willing to consider the issue of extreme partisan districting. Li said he is cautiously optimistic that the Court might address the worst cases of partisanship, but anticipates that any ruling they might make to limit it would be very narrow.

Li also argued that the problem cannot be solved by “computers and algorithms,” but requires communities of interest to engage in the process, and to press for district lines that truly represent their “representational needs.” He pointed to local instances in California and St. Louis where residents successfully encouraged redistricting to consider communities of related interests, not solely geography or surface demographics.

McDonald (“not that Michael McDonald,” he began, deferring to the pop singer), laid out the purposes and programs of the Public Mapping Project, which is using public software, data collection, and education to encourage more non-professionals and their communities to become directly engaged in the process of mapping districts. Although he described mapping as overall an “inconceivably complex mathematical partitioning problem” – due to the many overlapping and sometimes contradictory standards that can underlie a given map – he reported considerable success at “empowering the public to map their own plans,” and either persuade official bodies either to use them directly or take them into substantive consideration when redrawing districts.

McDonald also insisted that the key is to see the process not as a professionalized, computer-technology specialty. “Humans program computers,” he said, “and they impose their value systems on the process of drawing the maps.” The mapping project, he said, at a minimum allows communities to show that it is eminently possible to draw fairer maps than those often imposed by partisan politicians, for whose most important value is explicitly partisan advantage.

Asked by an attendee, “Is there any hope for Texas?” in redistricting terms, Li said the GOP may well have overreached in trying to spread their own voters into too many districts for too much advantage, and by 2021 may want to reverse course – for example, by “packing” Travis County with huge numbers of Democrats, rather than the current “cracking” into five separate congressional districts (including Williamson County, six for the city of Austin).

The only substantial remedy, in the end, is voter backlash – that anticipated “blue wave,” to make it impossible the Texas GOP (or others elsewhere) to use redistricting as an absolute tool of politicians choosing their voters, rather than the other way round.

Fighting Gerrymandering in 2021

Friday, March 8, Hilton Salon A

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

The Hidden Cost of Labor Calculated in <i>Building the American Dream</i>
The Hidden Cost of Labor Calculated in Building the American Dream
In the rubble of the NOLA hotel collapse, Chelsea Hernandez's documentary remains relevant

Richard Whittaker, Dec. 6, 2019

Gun-Filled Weekend Prompts APD Action
Gun-Filled Weekend Prompts APD Action
Spring fest unrest

Mike Clark-Madison, March 22, 2019

More by Michael King
Lakeway Hospital Investors Settle With DOJ, HUD
DOJ LRMC Settlements
Fraud settlements backed by whistleblower complaint

Sept. 30, 2020

Eddie Rodriguez Concedes Senate Race to Sarah Eckhardt
Eddie Rodriguez Concedes Senate Race to Sarah Eckhardt
Longtime House rep foregoes run-off, emphasizes Dem party unity

July 31, 2020


Fighting Gerrymandering in 2021, Gerrymandering, SXSW Conference 2019, SXSW 2019, Michael Li, Michael McDonald, Brennan Center for Justice, Public Mapping Project

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle