By Wendy Underhill
After working on redistricting for more than three years at NCSL, I’m just past “beginner” status. And I can report that just about everything I know has come from the many legislative staff who’ve been working on redistricting for two decades or more. (I’m thinking of Mississippi’s Ted Booth, South Carolina’s Paula Benson and New York’s Jeff Wice for starters.)
This past weekend I was offline for more than 48 hours, and I had time to wonder about the remarkable commitment these folks have made to this singular policy area, and why they have stayed with it for so long.
I could be glib and say that redistricting is like malaria: It’s infectious and comes back again and again and again. But the real answer, I think, is that redistricting has so many facets that it can’t be dull. For instance:
- Law: This one topic gets to the U.S. Supreme Court more often than any other, and that means the rules of engagement on redistricting change with time.
- Technology: It used to be that acetate was overlaid on paper maps. Let’s just say the story is quite different now, with cloud computing and GIS.
- Data: The U.S. Census Bureau provides states with basic information (how many people live where?), but states can and do find data in many places to round out what they know about their residents with an eye toward skillfully crafting districts.
That’s just for starters. There’s also the people element, complicated logistics and the public’s desire for meaningful impact. I’m going to add to this list, and if you have ideas for it, please let me know.
With all these factors in mind, we have decided to put a spin on each of NCSL’s five redistricting seminars that are spread out over the next 18 months. Each will include an opportunity for staff to meet with each other, for Ds and Rs to strategize separately and for everyone to get the basics on law, tech and data.
And, each seminar will offer something just a little different. For instance, in Providence, R.I., June 20-23, we’ll have an optional tour on a video-equipped bus that will allow us to display information on census blocks, block groups, census tracts and how neighborhoods are shown in census geography. In Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 24-27, we’ll focus more on technology, in Las Vegas (May 6-10, 2020) we’ll highlight data—where to find it and how to use it, and in Portland, Ore. (Sept. 24-27, 2020) we’ll do a final sweep of the latest legal updates. And Washington, D.C., in January 2021? With census data about to land in the legislatures around the nation, we’ll focus on “Everything Ever, Abridged.”
I hope to see many of you at one or more of these events.
Wendy Underhill is NCSL’s still-learning director of elections and redistricting.