Pros Plan New Shapes for Redistricting Map

Remember that time, in Mississippi in 1977, when the number-crunchers fed into the mainframe computer one more district than the state actually had -- and the darned thing worked anyway? Spat out a perfect redistricting plan -- for the whole state! And remember all those times when lawmakers sidled right up to the redistricting guys, and discreetly leaned on 'em, to make sure the lawmakers' districts included their wives, their mothers, and their mistresses?

Priceless! Or how about all those moments when the precise science of aerial mapping met up with the wild freedom of abstract art to produce such enduring classics as The Earmuff District (Illinois-4)? Or Dead Cat Road Kill (Georgia-13)? Or Tyrannosaurus Redistrictus (Arizona-2)? Crazy times -- and only once a decade!

These are among the inside jokes, tall tales, and sorcerer's lore batted around when the usually faceless and anonymous professionals who populate the arcane world of redistricting all get together. This year's version of the funfest was held this past weekend, in suburban Maryland at the Gaylord National Hotel & Convention Center, site of the 2011 National Redistricting Seminar.

Sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the seminar has at its heart, of course, some very serious business: instructing and guiding the individuals in all 50 states who will spend this year redrawing their states' congressional maps. The process of redistricting, which is based on the apportionment of House seats determined by the Census Bureau's decennial population count, can shape the outcomes of congressional races for a generation or more.

This is especially so because the process is controlled by the lawmakers in each state's legislature and, in some cases, with the input of a state's governor: not exactly the kinds of people who have been known to eschew partisan politics in the making of their decisions. The frolic gets underway in earnest early next month, when the Census Bureau begins delivering to each state, via FedEx shipments, a computer disc containing the racial and ethnic data for each county in that state. The last of the states will receive their FedEx packages by April 1.

"It's just this wicked convergence of data, geography, maps and law, and it's extraordinarily complicated," said Tim Storey, a senior fellow with the NCSL who has worked in the redistricting field for 20 years, and who led the seminar at the Gaylord. "But it has to be done. The Constitution requires it."

Some states, like Texas -- which won big in the apportionment sweepstakes this year, garnering four new seats -- are known to maintain their redistricting offices throughout the 10-year intervals in between the mapping process. But the vast majority of states are usually late to the game, frantically sending out requests to software companies and other service providers as recently as this week.

What's more, as in the House of Representatives itself, this latest cycle brings to the process an exceptionally large freshman class in statehouses across the land.

"You have a lot of newbies," noted Kimball W. Brace, president of Election Data Services, a leading provider of the election return, district boundary-line and zip code tables that get fed into the computers used by state legislatures to redraw their maps. "They're so new they may not even realize how far behind they are. That will be a factor ... unlike in other decades."

Maybe it was the fact that it was the final hours of the four-day event, but the crowd in attendance inside the Gaylord's Cherry Blossom Ballroom was sparse. One attendee, a younger man in sweater and chinos, could be observed checking football stats on his laptop, as well as the admissions page for the University of Connecticut Business School. Despite Storey's game attempts to leaven the proceedings with rousing name-that-district contests, with Starbucks cards for prizes, even some of his fellow panelists rubbed their eyes and fidgeted in apparent torture at the exquisite dullness of the subject matter: data, geography, maps and law.

Meantime, Tom Hofeller, the grizzled veteran of the game who is redistricting director for the Republican National Committee, led the attendees through a personalized slide show featuring words of advice for those new to the field. His maxims ranged from the banal and predictable ("Loose lips sink ships"; "Remember -- a journey to legal HELL starts with but a single misstatement OR a stupid email!") to the startling and probably really valuable ("Don't 'can' the staff until you're sure redistricting is really over"; "NEVER travel without counsel").

"You should print out detailed maps in advance and study the maps," Hofeller told the audience. "Put 'em up on your wall [and learn] the political factors, the demographic factors, so that when you are playing with the districts, you kind of know the state as a whole…. I call this ‘Where's Waldo.' Make sure you know where your incumbents live!"

"Sometimes," he added, "you have to collapse districts and create new ones. Sometimes you can just push and shove things. They've been doing that in Chicago for five decades. Someday that rubber band's gonna break!"

The demographers, software professionals lawyers and political appointees who inhabit this realm all seem to know each other well. They have seen the redistricting process evolve, decade after decade, from the days of mainframes and enormous hand-colored wall maps to the highly sophisticated digital algorithms of today, which produce hundreds of alternatives for each district under review. They know the little tricks of the business the way a prizefighter gets to know the ring: the "give" in the canvass, and the exact length the ropes can be bent back.

Thus a veteran of the redistricting process will tell you "Blessed are those whose districts are in the corners!" because a district located in the corner of a state is less susceptible to the kind of manipulation seen in the abstract artworks mentioned above. And they know, too, that there are seven states -- Alaska, Montana , Delaware, North and South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming -- that have only one House member representing them, equally blessed individuals who will never find themselves redistricted out of a seat. And they know that still other states, like Ohio, enshrine in their state constitutions firm rules on the "compactness" that must be achieved in the drawing of each district within state lines.

These players on the circuit all make sure to keep current with the same software offerings, from companies like Citygate and Caliper (maker of "Maptitude"), as well as the most recent court rulings on the Voting Rights Act. These opinions from judges around the country set the rules of the road for such esoteric matters as how much variation there can be between districts' populations.

In theory, all districts, as part of the "one man, one rule" principle, are supposed to contain equal numbers of residents. But a court in one jurisdiction may tolerate a 9.78 percent deviation in population, while another court in another part of the country may force upon a state a radical redrawing of its district maps because a deviation of the exact same percentage is considered prejudicial to voters there by race, party, or some other characteristic.

To thread these needles just so, the pros rely on what they call the "redistricting data cube," which refers to overlapping sets of census, political, spatial and tabular information. Storey, a lively and fresh-faced man who is prematurely graying at the age of 44, likens the work to playing four-dimensional chess.

"Sometimes the shapes of the districts can be very irregular," he told FOX News at the conclusion of the NCSL seminar. "But usually, there's a pretty understandable explanation behind those odd-shaped districts….And it's a matter of trying to draw districts that comply with an extremely complex body of federal law, with geography that can also be complicated because of rivers, or mountain ranges, or coastlines, those kinds of things. "

How often, we asked, do these abstract classics -- The Earmuff District, Dead Cat Road Kill, and the others -- result from the work of people who are just plain corrupt and evil?

"Well, you know, the truth is probably in the middle somewhere," Storey said with a grin. "I don't think they're corrupt or evil. I honestly don't….And redistricting is just one part of an elections process. You know, it's sort of the beginning point. If a district sort of favors a Republican candidate or a Democratic candidate, they might have a head start, but they have to have good candidates. They have to raise money. They have to run a good campaign. So many, many things factor into how elections are drawn."