Political Cartographers Train to Redraw Districts

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 19, 2011 · 3:10 PM EST

Some of the most powerful people you’ve never heard of are coming to the Washington, D.C., area this week, and their legacy will last at least a decade.

Now that the census count and reapportionment are over, we know which states will gain or lose seats as part of the redistricting process. But one key step still remains: drawing the new Congressional maps. Many of those mapmakers are coming to town for training sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“There is a misconception at the Congressional level and the state level that redistricting is done in Washington, D.C.,” said Bill Burke of Foundation for the Future, a key redistricting group that helps coordinate the map-drawing on the Democratic side. “It’s done in the states, in most cases by the legislatures.”

The NCSL is hosting the National Redistricting Seminar from Friday through Monday at the Gaylord National Hotel & Convention Center just outside Washington. Sessions will cover the technical and legal aspects of the redistricting process.

For some people, it’s a refresher course, but for most it will be an introduction.

“There is such a large percentage of stakeholders who had little to no involvement last time,” attorney Mark Braden, one of Republicans’ go-to attorneys on redistricting, said about the decennial exercise.

Most of the attendees will be state legislators and their legislative staff because in many cases they will be drawing maps. Some Congressional staff will also be there in order to understand the process to help their bosses get the best district possible.

“This is the last chance for these people to attend before the games begin,” GOP redistricting authority Tom Hofeller told Roll Call. The U.S. Census Bureau is expected to release the data sometime between Feb. 1 and March 31. “Until then, it’s all speculation,” he added.

States with legislative elections in 2011 are likely to be released first because both legislative and Congressional lines are being redrawn. That means Virginia, New Jersey, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and states with early 2012 filing deadlines are likely to be in the first wave, while other states will be released in subsequent waves through the end of March.

The data come in multiple files but on one CD for each state. The Census Bureau ships the CD to the executive branch in each state, to each party leader in each chamber of the legislature and to each national party committee. After the Census Bureau has confirmed the state recipients have their copies, the data files are posted for downloading on the Internet from the bureau’s website.

After the data are released, the parties will merge the information with large databases of prior election results and demographic information that they’ve been culling and cultivating for years. Then party operatives will use a geographic information systems program such as Maptitude to draw the maps.

Maptitude is the program of choice, according to Republican and Democratic redistricting veterans, because it is more user-friendly, but another program called AutoBound is also used.

Prior to the NCSL conference, Republican data firm Magellan Strategies is hosting two days of Maptitude training. It’s free for interested Republicans and paid for by Magellan, not the Republican National Committee.

The NCSL event is somewhat unique because the partisan lines are blurred even though the political stakes are high in redistricting. The general sessions will bring both Democrats and Republicans together to learn about the technical and legal components of redistricting from partisan operatives, law professors and officials from the Census Bureau.

“We’re not revealing any deep, dark secrets,” said Braden, who will be part of a public session on the Voting Rights Act on Sunday. Republicans agree with Democrats on 90 percent of the issues to be discussed, Braden added.

For the issues where there is a difference in philosophy, each party will have a breakout session Friday before the general sessions that is closed to the press, the public and the other party.

The breakout is an opportunity for each party to be more candid and talk about state-specific strategies. But for the most part, this strategic planning session is not the beginning but a continuation of a planning process that has been going on for months, if not years.

The NCSL seminar marks a final step before the hypothetical maps and strategies move to the reality of the parties drawing new maps in each state.