Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.
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Startographer of the week: Redistricting watchdog
Pennsylvania’s congressional maps have long ranked among the most gerrymandered in the country, full of tortured-looking district shapes that give Republicans a distinct advantage. But earlier this year, a lawsuit by the League of Women Voters forced the state supreme court to order a redrawing of congressional maps. These maps were tested for the first time in last week’s primaries, and will likely prove more favorable to Democrats in this critical swing state during the midterms.
But Amanda Holt believes the new maps still fail important standards of nonpartisanship. In 2011, Holt, then a 29-year-old Lehigh County piano teacher without any professional degrees, succeeded in challenging the constitutionality of another set of Pennsylvania legislative maps—these at the state level. She won that case in state supreme court with the aid of fairer district maps that she drew herself, based on self-guided research.
I spoke with Holt for an update on her continuing work to educate the public about redistricting, and what she hopes to see from two other gerrymandering cases under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court cases this year.
Is gerrymandering always a problem?
Legally speaking, not always. There are multiple kinds of gerrymandering. Sometimes you want to give minorities a voice and an opportunity to elect someone who represents their interests. That can be acceptable.
What, historically, has been the problem with the redistricting process in Pennsylvania?
What I found in my research is that when state officials went to draw the boundaries, they spoke strongly about [making sure] the incumbent would continue to be elected and represent that area. That was a high priority. But that’s not what you find in the Constitution. Our founders felt that people could have the strongest voice by having municipalities and counties unite to elect someone who’d represent them in state or federal government. So when you start splitting apart these areas, it weakens and dilutes the voice of people in the government.
Several years after you successfully got the state district map changed, the state supreme court has ordered a new congressional map, following another lawsuit. You’ve been outspoken in critiquing this new map, recently testifying before a state Senate committee. Why?
It didn’t seem like the court respected the rules that they set out. The new map splits more voting precincts than the previous map. Whether this is related to changing the partisan makeup of representatives [as the New York Times and others have wondered] is speculation, because it wasn’t a very transparent process. There was not much rationale given for why the map looks the way it does.
So I thought that this was a great opportunity to once again take the knowledge that I’ve gained and to share it with others, as the state contemplates reforming the process and making improvements for the next set of maps.
What do you hope to see emerge from the U.S. Supreme Court cases looking at gerrymandering in Maryland and Wisconsin?
I’d hope that they’re able to refocus on drawing maps with respect to municipal boundaries because they don’t change over time and they’re not subject to the whims of partisan politics. They’re there to guard against what we’ve been seeing with gerrymandering.
Tips for redistricting reformers in other states?
Don’t assume that someone else is going to say something. Speak up. Be persistent, practical, and persuasive.
Orient yourself: The Border Zone
Last week, in an enterprising story filled with maps, CityLab’s Tanvi Misra examined the “100-mile border zone,” a swath of land hugging U.S. boundaries where Customs and Border Protection agents have elevated search and seizure powers. You might be surprised to find that you live there. For MapLab, Misra writes:
Using ESRI’s rich trove of location data, we mapped the population density and the concentration of minority population in the zone. We found that the 100-mile zone is home to 65.3 percent of the U.S. population and 75 percent of the Hispanic population. That’s crazy, considering CBP has the authority to use race and ethnicity to stop and question folks on trains, buses, highways, and domestic flights anywhere in this region.
Syrian refugee camps are geographically complex. Thanks to their residents, now some of them are mapped. ♦ What did Palestine look like before Israel? An open-source map archive reveals villages destroyed or depopulated since 1948. ♦ Where have Puerto Ricans emigrated since Hurricane Maria? The U.S. Census doesn’t keep track, but cellphone records do. ♦ Want to get really angry about London’ s new tube maps? This journalist did. ♦ The maps of the new Ebola outbreak in Congo are deeply inaccurate. Cartographers are racing to fix them. ♦ A ship carrying sorghum has been zigzagging through the Indian Ocean, caught between tense U.S. and Chinese trade relations. Bloomberg caught it on map.
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