My Representative Drew Dennert (R-3/Aberdeen) disappoints me by joining a majority of his Republican redistricting colleagues in voting not to let us mere civilians touch the software the Capitol Club members get to use as they draw the new Legislative district maps:
The committees drawing boundaries for South Dakota’s legislative election districts decided Monday the public can’t use the Legislature’s taxpayer-funded software.
The concern was that the public would offer too many ideas for the LRC to handle before the November 8 special session.
Representative Drew Dennert spoke on behalf of others who served with him on the panels’ joint subcommittee on technology.
“We thought it would be best for this committee to have access to that software, and then as we work through it to hopefully with our LRC staff to get some other options for individuals of the public who like to draw maps, and then have a way for individuals to submit maps and send them to us. But as far as the actual software we’re using today, we’d like for us to just keep that open to the 15 of us who are on this committee,” Dennert said [Bob Mercer, “S.D. Panels Say Public Can’t Use Legislature’s Redistricting Software,” KELO-TV, 2021.08.30].
Yes, Gaia forbid that the public offer too many ideas.
Now I will grant that practical reasons could prevent making the Legislature’s redistricting software publicly available for our tinkering. The Legislature may have purchased only enough licenses for LRC staff and the gerrymandering committee members. They may not be able to afford licenses for thousands of interested citizens. The software may be installed locally on Legislative computers or on a secure server that only legislators and LRC staff can access.
I will suggest that the public is unlikely to flood the Legislature with alternate maps. The very imperfect map I posted yesterday resulted from three tries that took several hours over several days of tinkering, and that was without taking into account all of the legal requirements for majority-minority districts and other criteria the Legislature must follow. Producing a complete 35-district map, along with possible splits for single-member House districts as we currently have in Districts 26 and 28, takes a lot of time and attention, which will naturally limit the number of review-worthy maps the LRC might receive from citizen activists.
And for those hardy few who do want to propose alternative district maps, the online software I’m using, District Builder, is free, easy to use, and apparently sufficient for the purposes of public input in the redistricting process.
But Representative Dennert, think about the civics education opportunity here. You are engaged in a once-in-a-decade process. You have a rare opportunity to invite citizens and especially students to engage in a keenly important and complicated process. As a classroom activity, trying to draw fair Legislative districts provides a fascinating interdisciplinary exercise in government (what factors are important in providing fair and effective representation?), politics (how are various parties distributed around our state? How can changing boundaries affect the chances of certain candidates and parties to win office?), geography (where are the most dense and most sparse communities in South Dakota? What constitutes a community?), geometry (how do different shapes affect average driving times?), and math (What is the average variance of your district sizes?). Inviting students and citizens to use the same software as legislators to submit actual maps for consideration by our elected officials would lend those lessons a greater feeling of authenticity and meaning.
If we can’t open up the Legislature’s software for public use, the LRC should at least post a link to District Builder and actively invite public to draw, share, and discuss possible Legislative maps with each other and with our official mapmakers. More public participation would help more people understand the ills of gerrymandering and the challenges of drawing fair election maps.