Already, this redistricting cycle has been like no other in recent memory. A global pandemic and a fight to include a question about citizenship in the decennial census caused the Census Bureau to announce it will be unable to meet its statutory deadlines for delivering the data. Although a few legislatures have begun drafting and even passing maps, the delay means that most states will not begin redistricting until five months later than anticipated. Several states have already begun to have hearings, and will hopefully follow up with more after the pre-Sept. 30 data files release.
In addition, legislative and congressional redistricting will be conducted by citizen commissions in 11 states, up from seven in 2010. Citizen commissions are seen by many reformers as not only a means to greater public input and community representation, but also as a limit to gerrymandering. And the trend seems likely to continue: According to the Brennan Center, proposals to create redistricting commissions were the most common type of redistricting reform considered by legislatures in 2020, including 18 that specifically called for citizen commissions.
For those not directly engaged in the process, there is a third and critical difference in the process this cycle: widespread public access to nonpartisan data, tools and information necessary to engage meaningfully in the process.
Drawing legally compliant district maps requires a tremendous amount of data, which is often time consuming to collect and labor intensive to process. Legislators have staff on hand to collect and process this data, as well asprovide technical support and training. They also have taxpayer dollars to buy proprietary mapping software, allowing them to intricately manipulate district lines to produce friendly districts. Because the data and tools are difficult to acquire, the ability to suggest more legally compliant maps or analyze proposed maps for gerrymandering has been out of reach for all but the most well-resourced groups.
This time, however, individuals and organizations can turn to the nonpartisan Redistricting Data Hub, a one-stop shop for high-quality redistricting data. For instance, all states require compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The RDH website hosts validated precinct boundaries joined with election results, which are used for racially polarized voting analyses, an essential step in assessing VRA compliance. RDH also hosts American Community Survey and voter file data with racial and ethnic information, as well as population projections, that can be used to assess how the demographics of a district might change over time.
Numerous states also require redistricting to respect "communities of interest," a criterion that is generally viewed as a door to more equitable representation. These communities are often subjectively defined, but testimony in support of a community can benefit from quantitative evidence found in the ACS, voter file data and population projections.
But data will only get you halfway there — access to mapping software and the technical skill to use them are also necessary to draw and analyze maps.
Once again, this cycle is different, in that there are several high-quality redistricting tools available for free online, including Dave's Redistricting App, DistrictBuilder, Districtr, Representable and the QGIS Redistricting Plugin. RDH has partnered with these organizations to provide demonstrations on how to use their tools, and you can find recordings of these sessions on the RDH website. And anyone can send questions about redistricting data, mapping tools, and other aspects of the process to email@example.com; knowledgeable, nonpartisan and friendly staff will respond within one business day.
Only time will tell how effective these changes are in preventing gerrymandering. But there are clear reasons for hope this time around, as long as the public uses these tools to their advantage. If you spent the last 10 years bemoaning gerrymandering, now's your chance to make sure you don't spend the next decade doing the same. The data, tools and support you need to effectively participate and advocate for a fair and representative redistricting are all publicly available online for free from the Redistricting Data Hub. Use our resources and let's advocate for fair districts!
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Frazier, a student at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, runs The Oregon Way, a nonpartisan blog.
One lifeguard stood guard over a Santa Cruz beach full of sunbathers and swimmers. With temps topping the 80s and the Pacific providing a cool, but not freezing, source of relief, the lifeguard had his hands full at once ensuring that basic beach etiquette was being followed and monitoring the surf for swimmers struggling against strong rip currents. Unsurprisingly, he couldn't do both.
A small girl snuck into the waves while her parents were distracted with three other children. In a flash, the girl had been toppled by a machine-washer of a wave and was losing a battle against the water to regain access to air. Thankfully, an outlooker identified the increasingly dire condition of the girl and sprinted into the water. The lifeguard came soon after, but absent the action of this good Samaritan it's unclear whether anyone would have been there in time.
Our democracy, like the beach, requires that we all actively contribute to a healthy public environment, rather than leaning on single individuals and institutions to do the entirety of the hard work of good governance and civil discourse.
At the beach, some people feel that they're off the hook when it comes to looking out for others — that's the lifeguard's job, they say. In our democracy, many people feel that it's on politicians, the media and civic institutions to reinforce democratic norms — that's their duty, they say.
In both cases, there's a faulty assumption at work — that the appointed safeguards have the resources (financial, personnel, temporal) required to protect everyone. That assumption may have held true decades ago, but just as the seas have become rougher, the illiberal waves crashing on the foundation of our democracy have become stronger. The result is that we can no longer rely on these singular entities to do a job that requires collective action.
At the beach, a safer experience for all requires a little more engagement by all. Despite the lifeguard placing a "rip tide warning" flag at the beach entry, repeatedly making calls on his megaphone and rushing into the surf on numerous occasions to help struggling swimmers, most beachgoers seemed quite fine ignoring the rules he tried to set. Part of this is an understandable inclination toward freedom and liberty — you're at the beach, after all, let other people do as they please! That inclination, though, can only go so far. A girl nearly lost her life — a situation that only occurred because of failures by public and private parties alike.
On the public end, the most glaring issue was a lack of lifeguards. On the private end, a number of parties were arguably at fault, including parents too busy with other kids and bystanders too fearful of litigation resulting from a rescue gone wrong.
In our democracy, a healthier democracy likewise is the responsibility of public and private stakeholders alike. For one, elected and public officials should be held to higher, more enforceable standards. A sample reform could be designating those standards and then empowering a bipartisan, independent agency to rigorously enforce those standards. Such a body would have been of immense value in Oregon during the state's last legislative session — at least three elected officials were the subjects of ethical investigations — each investigation took too long and involved too many partisan interests. A standing agency could have resolved each case in a standardized, transparent and efficient manner — resulting in better behavior among officials and more trust among the public.
But we should not hold our breath for elected officials suddenly improving their behavior. Voters and the public in general have to take ownership over our collective civic health. Self-restraint is in order: for example, reserving Facebook for photos of friends and family, rather than as a platform for partisan mud-slinging. But we can and should also do more to intervene on the behalf of others: inviting friends and family to attend city council meetings, encouraging community leaders to run for office, asking others to join a mutual pledge to volunteer more in the community.
Collective action (and restraint) is required for everyone to have a great day at the beach; same goes for everyone to access the liberty and freedoms created by a strong democracy.
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Nevins is co-publisher of The Fulcrum and co-founder and board chairman of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund.
Tuesday night, as I listened to Jeff Bezos speak of his vision for space, I was moved by the vastness of his vision; his vision of space as a production center to lessen the environmental dangers of industrial production to our planet.
His vision seems so far-fetched today, just as I am sure a vision of a vast commercial aviation business that flies millions of people around the world daily would have seemed only a distant dream after Wilbur and Orville Wright's first flight of 12 seconds and 120 feet in 1903.
I was inspired by Bezos' vision as it applies to the work I have been doing for over a decade to repair the broken democracy that currently exists in our nation. As the founder and chairman of the board of the Bridge Alliance, a coalition of 90+ organizations working together to strengthen our democracy and heal the divides that separate us as a society, I sometimes feel that my efforts and those of my colleagues are merely an idealistic dream given that the toxic polarization and dysfunction seem to bet getting worse, not better.
And so Bezos' words inspired me. His statement that big things start small reminds me that the task of democracy reformers will not be easy. As things seem to be getting worse, I realize that now is the time to take bold steps. While polls show most Americans believe our democracy is highly dysfunctional, many say to me the chances of change are small given the enormity of the task at hand. I fully understand the challenges that lie ahead, but like the exploration of space, taking small steps now will build into giant leaps in the future. Just as Bezos realizes his dream will not be realized in his lifetime, I realize the same may be true for the work democracy reformers are doing.
As with most innovations, big changes are never the work of one person. Innovation comes from the combined energy and brilliance of a community of people all working toward the same goal. Like the transcontinental railroad or the great interstate highway system that has brought our citizens closer together in terms of proximity, we are building a similar infrastructure, an infrastructure for democracy.
The visionary leaders of the organizations within the Bridge Alliance recognize that democracy must be founded on discourse and discussion, and that these discussions must be replete with differing perspectives and opinions. This visionary group of men and women, with whom I work daily, understand that embracing our ideological differences will ultimately lead to inquiry, and this inquiry to truth. Civil discourse and critical thought are essential if the grand experiment that is American democracy is to succeed.
This week, Bezos decided not only to invest in space, but in the infrastructure of democracy as well. Two "Courage and Civility" awards valued at $100 million apiece went to José Andres, whose World Central Kitchen helps feed masses of people following natural disasters, and Van Jones, who has founded several efforts to bridge the divide that separates us.
In announcing the awards Bezos said. "We need unifiers and not vilifiers. ... We need people who argue hard and act hard for what they believe. But they do that always with civility and never ad hominem attacks. Unfortunately, we live in a world where this is too often not the case. But we do have role models."
Now is the time to realize that bold changes are needed. The recipes of the past simply do not work. As idealistic as it seems today, flight exploration is going to change the very nature of commerce, so the work of the Bridge Alliance and our members seems equally as preposterous.
Let us be bold idealists, with big dreams:
- A democracy where elected representatives are direct and honest in their public statements, putting ethical commitments above partisan and career objectives, surely seems impossible in today's environment.
- A democracy where elected representatives who engage constructively, and do not dehumanize each other and refuse to debate the issues of our time in good faith, seems so far away if not impossible.
- A democracy that represents the diversity that is America, a democracy that represents the voice of young people, people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, rural and urban dwellers, conservatives and progressives, is within our grasp if We the People invest today in this dream for a better future.
We need to be bold and now is the time!
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Watching the reactions of different people and groups around the world, one might surmise that humanity is on the verge of extinction. Reactions and the intensity of emotions are at survival levels in at least four areas: political, cultural, economic and climate.
Human survival is often measured by poverty levels around the globe. Reports declare global poverty was at historic lows, prior to the pandemic. Yet our collective survival instincts In the United States were already on high alert when the pandemic hit; centered around things that are not food, safety or shelter, in other words, not really survival level for most working and middle class Americans. At least, not for Euro-Americans.
For more than 10 years, people working in civil society have noted a decline in adherence to social norms and a reduction of volunteers as we've self-sorted into like-minded groups, neighborhoods and media streams. The pandemic exacerbated what was already present — our fear of personal identity and global extinction — despite evidence to the contrary. What is really going on?
Throughout recorded Euro-centric history, humans have turned to conspiracy theories, wars and dehumanization of others during times immediately prior to great cultural, economic and political advances. Think the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. Or more recently the Great Depression and World War II and its depravities, followed by the advancement of civil rights.
Is it possible that what feels existential is in fact, a sign of growth? If this is the case, how might we use our sense of existential threat and dread to grow as individuals and as a society?
The Dark Ages saw the rise of authoritarian impulses via the Catholic Church. There was a great migration and the Black Death. This parallel seems eerie.
The Great Depression was the aftermath of an economic collapse that was preceded by a pandemic and World War I (or the Great War, as it was then known). Migration was spurred by atrocities of war and hunger. This parallel also seems eerie.
And here we are again.
- Economic hardship.
What are the parallels to today so that we might navigate our current existential crisis? And what might this mean for our future in the United States? As in historical times, a way of life is ending. But another way of life is about to be born.
History shows that the advancement of society is never a straight line. We move forward two steps, we move back one step. There is small advancement and then a regression, followed by a big advancement. Then more regression. Society is always changing. And there will always be resistance to change, resistance to the death of what we know. It is part of how we humans are biologically wired.
We humans are also wired to be social creatures. We are stronger in community and weaker in isolation. The pandemic has highlighted our need for community in a period where rugged individualism has reigned supreme.
Like historical times, people are migrating at historic levels, for survival reasons. They flee war zones and famine. Refugees are seeking a better life for their children. The existential crises we feel in the United States seem less about actual survival; there is no war or famine here.
Why are we feeling an existential threat? And what exactly is dying? Some possibilities include our dreams and our expectations about the future. We might assume those seeking a better future for their children will change the United States, and if so, will the United States we know be forever transformed?
From our current view in the middle of competing existential crises, we have options. We can choose to fight or we can choose to create. I hope we choose a new Renaissance. We can co-create it together.
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