a 1940 census enumeration district map of Lincoln County, Nebraska

Before GIS: a 1940 census district map of Lincoln County, Neb. Sophisticated—and sometimes free—mapping software now lets the public get involved in redistricting in ways once reserved only for government officials.

States Ensure Public Can Safely Weigh In on Redistricting

By Ben Williams | Dec. 17, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

With redistricting approaching, cash-strapped states may find the many incarnations of videoconferencing—Zoom, WebEx, Teams, etc.—to be an unexpected boon.

These efficient, web-based tools can be a great way to receive input safely and economically from the public regarding the line-drawing process.

As all fifty states blueprint their redistricting procedures, complying with legal requirements and meeting public needs in cost-effective ways are paramount. But uncertainty around the pandemic (Will vaccinations permit in-person meetings to resume?) and the census (When will redistricting data be shared with states?) has prevented states from finalizing their plans. Even so, states are beginning to lay the groundwork for soliciting and receiving input on redistricting from the public.

Some state laws explicitly mention remote participation for public input in redistricting. Colorado’s Constitution (Article V, Section 48) states, for example, that any statewide meeting or commission hearing must include “the necessary elements of electronic attendance.” In other sections, the Constitution notes that attendance at a hearing may occur “in person or electronically,” that a commission “shall maintain a website or comparable means of communicating with the public” and that it “shall provide simultaneous access to the regional hearings by broadcasting them via its website or comparable means.”

But enumeration of remote broadcast and public-input rules is not necessary for a state to establish a successful system. For example, the Oklahoma Senate set up an email address (redistricting@oksenate.gov) that the public can use to submit proposed redistricting plans. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can purchase or use free redistricting software (Dave’s Redistricting and District Builder are two examples) to create plans that can be exported into shapefiles or Excel spreadsheets for legislators to read and review. Whether Oklahoma’s expected hearings are in person or open to the public is still to be determined.

If your state has yet to finalize its plans for how to handle public input in redistricting, it’s not too late to learn more about your options! Register for NCSL’s redistricting seminar in January and tune in to the session “Developing a Dialogue: Public Input and Legislative Outreach.” It, along with the other sessions, will cover everything you need to know to complete this once-a-decade task.

Ben Williams is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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