GIS technologies and political representation

There was a provocative paper published today in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences, by Benjamin Forest, from the Department of Geography at Dartmouth College. The paper, called “The changing demographic, legal, and technological contexts of political representation” (abstract) focuses on three trends that Forest argues are making political representation a more challenging process than in the past:

  1. Growing demographic complexity in America
  2. Legal developments since the 1960s that have increased the number of groups those political rights are protected under the law.
  3. The use of technology in the redistricting process, especially GIS technology, is allowing for increased precision in the development of electoral districts with certain political or geographic attributes.

There is much in this short PNAS paper that will be of interest to scholars of voting rights and the redistricting process. What really caught my eye was Forest’s critique of the growing role of technology in the redistricting process, especially the use of GIS. Forest argues in late in his paper:

I believe that political parties have been the major benefactors of GIS technology. Parties have achieved unprecedented control over the outcome of elections by gaining the ability to create precise gerrymanders. Moreover, even where states have made a genuine attempt to expand the representation of interests in redistricting GIS, organizational and bureaucratic practices introduce severe constraints, so that the use of GIS in redistricting has the counterintuitive result of limiting, rather than expanding, access to political representation (pages 15334-15335).

Based on his argument, Forest concludes that “Limiting the use of redistricting GIS to professional nonpartisan commissions may be better than allowing a political free-for-all, where political parties have vastly more power, expertise, and resources than citizens groups” (page 15336).

Like I said earlier, provocative stuff. The argument revolves around discussion of two recent cases, Texas and Arizona. It hardly takes much political science knowledge to point out that neither of these cases should be considered “typical” redistricting examples — Arizona’s recent redistricting experience was conducted with a totally new process, and it is difficult to characterize what has happened with redistricting in Texas. But I’d say that before we follow Forest’s advice, we might consider looking further at the impact of GIS technology on the redistricting process generally, and engage in some research to understand how these technologies can be used — or possibly abused — in election administration.