The Gerrymander on Big Data



Voters should choose their politicians - not the other way around. But today’s politicians use big data and advanced technology to manipulate voting maps in their favor, and lately, they’ve gotten alarmingly good at it.


Though gerrymandering has been around since the 1800’s - when politicians used paper maps and bow compasses - the practice of drawing lines for partisan gain has evolved rapidly. Thanks to big data, which can be used to predict voter behavior, and advanced computer programming, politicians and their highly paid consultants can draw districts with extreme precision to guarantee election outcomes decade after decade.


Voter behavior is largely predictable based on our previous voting behavior. This isn’t new – so rigging district maps isn’t new either. The word “gerrymander” comes from 1812 when former Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry adopted a winding, sprawling district that resembled a salamander.


Two hundred years later, given the technology and data available, politicians’ opportunity to cook the books has been supersized. This ain’t your grandma’s gerrymander - this is the gerrymander on big data.  




Mapping software like Global Information Systems (GIS), when initially paired with Census and precinct return data, opened the door to new levels of gerrymandering.  When this technology first came about in the 1990s, it required supercomputers, user expertise in the program, and time-consuming manual data entry - a process which could end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.  It was a secret weapon, but only for those with access. In the last decade or so, GIS has become much more accessible – it is user-friendly, affordable, and able to run on a desktop computer.


While previous public data sources allowed politicians to make estimates of voter behavior based on large areas, they are now able to slice neighborhoods and blocks with laser precision, zig-zagging district lines around individual, block, and even household data.


If you’re curious, you can learn more about GIS here!


Big data


Public data like Census information and precinct returns are one thing.  But now, private data is also becoming more available for purchase. This can give politicians insights into future voter behavior – what their sources of news are, what magazines they read, and who they follow on social media.  Due to the recent repeal of a net neutrality law that would have protected private user data by requiring big companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to ask permission before selling said data, those companies can now sell user data to other companies – or politicians and lobbyists – without getting consent from users.  This allows political parties to gain a deeper understanding of voters and use this to their advantage in mapmaking.


Fighting back


This wave of new access to technology and voter data has emboldened politicians to get craftier with gerrymandering – but it has also empowered the public to check what’s going on. Access to public data and the same software means that the public can get a look in, even where transparency is nonexistent. In many cases, this has allowed the public to challenge unfair lines and districts proposed by politicians that have clearly exploited their power to create maps that would keep them, and their parties, in office.  This has helped fuel the wave of state court cases in which citizens have challenged their legislators over unfair maps.


What can we do about it?


So what does this mean for Michigan?  If our proposal for an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission passes this November, the commission will be able to use the latest technology, with expert input, to create maps that are fair and reflect Michigan voters and our needs.  They will do this through a process that is fair, impartial and transparent, which means any material the commissioners use in their process must be made public. If we don’t pass the ballot initiative, politicians will continue to choose their voters - potentially down to the household - undermining a core part of our democracy.  


Are you ready to put an end to big data and advanced technology being used against you for politicians’ gain? So are we! Here’s how you can help:


Save the Date // save the date and vote YES for an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission in the November 6 2018 election!


Donate // the politicians and special interests who benefit from the current system will spend millions defending and protecting their unfair advantage. We have to fight back, and that will include advertising and putting together hundreds of local events across Michigan to educate voters on their rights. Donate to Voters Not Politicians here.


Volunteer // we are recruiting volunteers to spread the word in 2018 to help us end gerrymandering in Michigan! If you are interested in being a part of this vital part of the process, please click here.


Stay educated // learn more about gerrymandering and how you can defeat it! Stay up to date on campaign updates and news by signing up for our newsletter here.


Connect // follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates!


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