CityLab: Can Data Defeat Gerrymandering?


The question of how far mapmakers overstep their boundaries when drawing district lines will get a new test next week in a Supreme Court case that asks whether Wisconsin mapmakers engaged in unlawful partisan line-drawing. The topic has been scrutinized for two centuries, but the case, Gill v. Whitford, is the first in 13 years to reach the Supreme Court. This ruling could be especially influential now because mapmaking tactics have become dramatically more sophisticated. Officials have access to more detailed data than ever before, and are using that data for partisan means with needlepoint precision.


The Campaign Legal Center, which is representing the plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case, is trying to establish a standard for proving that partisan gerrymandering has occurred. That standard would employa three-part test: first establishing that a district was drawn with discriminatory intent, then proving that the re-districting affected election outcomes, and, lastly, evincing that the state could have done a better job at drawing balanced districts.


Here, technology can be used for more than ill-gotten gains. As much as map-making tools are aiding the process of gerrymandering, they’re also allowing advocates a way to track when it’s happening—and to fight back. Ruth Greenwood, Senior Legal Counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, recalls a case in Texas near the Rio Grande where plaintiffs proved that policymakers had used data on Latino turnout in a district to carefully include neighborhoods and homes that didn’t vote and exclude those that did. Greenwood is hoping that the courts will use the same data mapmakers do to identify and untie partisan knots. “Technology and data have changed the game,” Greenwood says. “What we are doing is saying, ‘Let’s not use all of that tech for evil, let’s let the courts use it for good.’”

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