SRC Launches Nation's First Online Redistricting Service

By Angela Lee

Vol. 22, No. 4, 2000 pp. 27-28

In the past, one of the chief obstacles used to exclude minorities from participation in the redistricting process has been the obstruction from easy access to technical redistricting tools and skills. Without an independent capacity to determine how majority-minority districts can be built, minority populations cannot confidentially know how many seats they have been denied, how many seats they might seek, and where those seats can be created. Members of minorities simply cannot achieve fair representation through full enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 without unobstructed access to redistricting technology and the skill to use it. Online redistricting, a groundbreaking new service by the Southern Regional Council (SRC), makes the biggest strides towards bridging the gap created to disfranchise minority voters.

The new technology, which seeks to help people become more involved in the drawing of their districts, virtually eliminates the technical gap that has kept many community groups and individuals from participating. The SRC has simplified the redistricting process so that groups with novice computer skills and a relatively modern Internet-capable computer can build their own plans easily and professionally. Functioning as an Internet-based service, the SRC's online redistricting utilizes user-friendly net-conferencing software and clear steps to walk clients through the process of creating and revising redistricting plans from inception to final printing and presentation.

One of the first localities to use the service was the Dublin-Laurens County Concerned Citizens Group in Dublin, Georgia. The city council and city board of education for Dublin received an ultimatum from a local citizens group in March 2000--redraw electoral districts for the city based on recent census figures.

The city's population is 46 percent black. The new districts proposed by the city council not only diluted minority voting strength of both district I and II, but, as the Department of Justice noted in its preclearance review, "the proposed plan may make it more difficult for black voters to elect candidates of choice" because of the way the populations were distributed.

The Dublin-Laurens County Concerned Citizens Group, an ad hoc group of minority community activists and leaders in Dublin, wanted to offer an alternative plan to the city council that would prevent the dilution of minority representation in the city council's plan so they contacted the SRC. SRC staff, including Program Director Winnett Hagens and Senior Program Officer Mekonnen Gessesse, set up an Internet conference with the group and led them through the process of drawing their own alternative district maps. Sandra Scott, a leading organizer of the Dublin-Laurens Concerned Citizens Group, talks about the process and how the staff made learning the online technology easy:

"Once we downloaded the net conferencing software, SRC faxed what we needed to do, step-by-step, and there was no problem starting it on the computer. I think it took about thirty minutes of seeing how it all works to really understand, but as I watched it was easy to catch on. I had imagined how hard it's going to be, but it really wasn't. Once you finished, you could see it right there. It was truly amazing!"

The fact that the Dublin-Laurens County Concerned Citizens' plan was ignored by the city council, is what prompted the Department of Justice to look more closely at the city council's plan and the impact it would have on minority representation.

Broward County Citizens for Single Member Districts and the Ft. Lauderdale NAACP in Broward County, Florida, have also made use of SRC's online redistricting services. In March of 2000, Broward County voters passed a referendum to increase the county commission from seven members to nine and to elect those members along single-member district lines rather than through at-large voting. This change opened the door for an increase in minority representation on the commission which contained no minority representatives (even though blacks comprise 18.5 percent of the county population and Hispanics comprise 11 to 12 percent). In fact, only one African American and no Hispanics had been elected to the county commission during the past one hundred years.

With the move to elect members in single member districts, the only question that remained was how many majority-minority districts should be drawn. The Broward County Citizens for Single Member Districts and the Ft. Lauderdale NAACP contacted SRC for help in drawing maps they could propose to the commission. Together, they constructed a districting plan that would allow the African Americans and Hispanics in Broward County to achieve the fair representation they had previously been denied. There were two majority-minority districts where


Page 28

blacks comprised 52 percent and 58 percent of the population and a third district where minorities, mainly Hispanics, comprised close to 50 percent of the population.

Attorney Sidney Calloway, who worked with the NAACP and the SRC on the online drawing for Broward County, Florida, describes the Internet-based conference:

"When we got down to it, we had people situated in two or three offices at any given time. SRC staff were in Atlanta, and collectively in different places we worked on the maps. That was a new experience that helped the process. The SRC provided their expertise, but they're not from Broward County so there were things we could bring to the table in sitting down and drawing the maps that they could not."

After all the parties involved in the net conference agreed on their new plan of representation, the SRC handled the formal printing of the map on it's large format plotter, providing a colorful, professional-looking, poster-sized map displaying the NAACP's own plan to the last detail. Sidney Calloway explains how much it meant to have a refined finished product that allowed for input from many places:

"The results we got were excellent. We wanted to draw our own maps rather than have others to give us maps to look over. We were very excited to be able to click and pull the boundaries of the maps ourselves because that's something that doesn't happen a lot. The result of the SRC's help was that when we went to the county commission and presented these maps in the name of the NAACP, they took us very seriously. If the online service was not available, we would have been relegated to having someone else do the work in Atlanta and send us maps without us really being able to look at them and make changes. The online aspect made all the difference in the world."

In addition to helping clients draw their own redistricting plans, the SRC makes its redistricting staff experts available to testify at public hearings in support of the community-based plans they help create. This additional expert-backing is what Roosevelt Walters, president of the Ft. Lauderdale branch of the NAACP, says set the SRC's online service apart from similar redistricting tools. He explained:

"Mr. Hagen's word carried a lot of weight when we presented our map to the county. I could have stood up there all day and said what I felt was right, but it helped to have an outside expert with redistricting knowledge there to give support. With the SRC staff at the meeting, we felt comfortable in front of the county's experts, even when they asked us difficult technical questions about the map we created. Since we had our experts there, we were prepared to answer any of their questions. We couldn't have done any of this without the SRC's help."

So, what does it all mean? "Using online redistricting," says Hagens, "community-based groups will, for the first time, be able to easily draw and revise representational districts which defend their interests as they define those interests. Online redistricting aids in reversing the roles of political elites and ordinary voters in the redistricting process. Online redistricting helps to move influence over where it belongs--in the hands of the people."

Angela Lee is a graduate of the University of Virginia who currently volunteers her writing services to a number of local organizations in the Atlanta area.