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6 Tips for Making Effective Comments at a Redistricting Hearing

The public’s comments really do influence the drawing of new voting district maps.

Published: August 26, 2021

In the early 2010s, I traveled around the coun­try observing dozens of redis­trict­ing hear­ings in the west­ern United States and analyz­ing nearly a thou­sand comments provided by private citizens, public offi­cials, and group repres­ent­at­ives to redis­trict­ing author­it­ies. The result was the first large-scale study of public involve­ment in the voting-map draw­ing process across multiple states, coau­thored with UC Irvine Professor Bern­ard Grof­man. We learned a lot about what makes comments effect­ive — and how to avoid unhelp­ful comments.

The Census Bureau’s release of redis­trict­ing data on August 12 star­ted a sprint to draw new elec­tion districts for the coming decade, a hugely import­ant under­tak­ing that can determ­ine who is and isn’t repres­en­ted in our govern­ment. Although every­day citizens some­times voice doubt about whether their input at redis­trict­ing hear­ings matters, we were pleas­antly surprised to see that about 44 percent of public comments that expressed a view on how a specific loca­tion should be handled by map draw­ers were adop­ted in the final congres­sional maps. But some comments were much more impact­ful than others.

Who is in charge of the redis­trict­ing process varies: some states, largely in the West, use commis­sions to draw maps, while in others, legis­latures are in control and pass a district map just like any other piece of legis­la­tion. But every state has a process for members of the public to comment on what they want to see in these new maps.

As the 2020 redis­trict­ing cycle gets going, our research into these public comment hear­ings leads to a few points to keep in mind as public offi­cials and private citizens get ready to give their thoughts to the redis­trict­ing author­it­ies in their states.

Give instruc­tions to map draw­ers

In our study, we found about 36 percent of comments at hear­ings were infeas­ible and unable to be mapped. For redis­trict­ing author­it­ies to be able to consider a given comment it must include two elements: a loca­tion and an instruc­tion. For example, one of the most common kinds of comments is to suggest a city or neigh­bor­hood be kept together in a single district. Other examples of feas­ible instruc­tions include a request to draw a group of cities together in a single district, use well-known bound­ar­ies like county lines or moun­tain ranges as borders between districts, or separ­ate two cities into differ­ent districts.

By contrast, infeas­ible comments are ones that don’t provide a clear instruc­tion to the map drawer. For example, a comment that a redrawn district include area to the south­w­est of the current district is diffi­cult to imple­ment in a final map without further guid­ance. A second, common refrain in states where the legis­lature draws the districts was for the legis­lature itself to give over the power of redis­trict­ing to a commis­sion. While this comment may give the legis­lature some sense of what the people would like, it addresses the process — some­thing that isn’t going to change imme­di­ately — rather than how to draw districts.

Think small

Our analyses of these comments revealed a strong rela­tion­ship between the size of the area addressed in the comment and its like­li­hood of being adop­ted. Comments that touched upon a smal­ler area — on the order of a neigh­bor­hood in most cases — were substan­tially more likely to be adop­ted in final maps than comments that related to larger areas, like a sugges­tion to group a set of counties together in the same district.

At the smal­lest level of area in our set of comments, we found the adop­tion rate of comments was about 71 percent, and the adop­tion rate was about 41 percent at the middle of the distri­bu­tion. Only about 15 percent of the comments deal­ing with the largest area were adop­ted.

Define your community and talk about its need for repres­ent­a­tion

For many, it is easi­est to talk about the distinct­ive features of the places and people closest to one’s home. What defines your neigh­bor­hood? Is the area demarc­ated by refer­ence to land­marks like parks, schools, road­ways, or other geographic features? This sort of inform­a­tion is import­ant for redis­trict­ing author­it­ies to know about, espe­cially because the sali­ence of, say, a partic­u­lar street is not always visu­ally appar­ent to someone lack­ing local know­ledge.

It is also help­ful to talk about your community’s needs and how they can be addressed by repres­ent­at­ives. For example, one common concern mentioned by resid­ents in Long Beach, Cali­for­nia, dealt with their desire to have the Port of Long Beach drawn into the same district as the city as a means to simplify efforts to medi­ate pollu­tion origin­at­ing from the port.

Or, communit­ies may have diver­ging concerns about an issue. Karin MacDon­ald and Bruce Cain observed that resid­ents on the south side of the Santa Monica Moun­tains in Los Angeles presen­ted “compel­ling testi­mony” that suscept­ib­il­ity to fire hazards was justi­fic­a­tion for separ­at­ing neigh­bor­hoods from the north side, where the risk of fires is lower.

Communit­ies can also be defined by the people within them. For example, one person testi­fy­ing before the Cali­for­nia redis­trict­ing commis­sion argued that the people living in “Lamorinda” deserved to be drawn into the same district due to their demo­graphic profiles and high degree of inter­ac­tion as observed through commut­ing patterns, little league sports, and the like. The only prob­lem, as one commis­sioner poin­ted out, is that you cannot find Lamorinda on the map. Instead, this community is actu­ally a combin­a­tion of three separ­ate cities in the state: Lafay­ette, Moraga, and Orinda. That the resid­ents of the area even have a nick­name for their community was remark­able for the commis­sioner at the time, and these cities ended up together in the newly drawn 11th District when the commis­sion unveiled its congres­sional map for the state.

Online mapping programs can help persuade

Tech­no­logy has made it easier than ever to produce maps show­ing the contours of your community in ways that can be trans­lated into district plans. In our initial study, only about 3 percent of indi­vidu­als testi­fy­ing before a redis­trict­ing author­ity prepared a computer-drawn map. In the 2020 cycle, however, there are multiple plat­forms to easily make a map of your local community to share as part of testi­mony — includ­ing refer­ences to the same data that the redis­trict­ing author­it­ies use when draw­ing maps — like Dave’s Redis­trict­ing AppDistrictr, and Repres­ent­able, each of which allows you to identify the area includ­ing your community. Testi­mony to a redis­trict­ing author­ity may carry more weight if that inform­a­tion is conveyed along with a visual refer­ence to guide the hands of the line draw­ers.

Be prepared for less time

As the series of hear­ings proceeded, I noticed a few changes in how the meet­ings were conduc­ted. First, limits on speak­ing time were intro­duced or, where they had been in place from the start, reduced in time to allow as many people as possible to speak. In one instance, the queue of people lined up to give feed­back on draft maps was so long the hear­ing went beyond 1 a.m.

There­fore, it may be vital to be ready to quickly summar­ize the main points of your comments before your allot­ted time expires and not use a ques­tion from a commis­sioner or legis­lature to clarify your comments. If, however, your comments run long, you can also include longer comments and supple­mental mater­i­als, like a map, in an email to the commis­sion or legis­lature too.

Build neigh­bor­hood coali­tions

These hear­ings also provide a great oppor­tun­ity for coali­tion-build­ing among your neigh­bors to collect­ively advoc­ate for a partic­u­lar district config­ur­a­tion. One effect­ive example of this strategy was at a hear­ing in Brook­lyn, when a spokes­per­son for a hous­ing asso­ci­ation presen­ted a peti­tion to the task force in New York that had split the member­ship of the hous­ing asso­ci­ation into two districts. The spokes­per­son described the community in ques­tion, observed that it was split, and then presen­ted a peti­tion signed by more than one thou­sand resid­ents asking for the community to be kept in a single district. It worked, and the final maps had the hous­ing asso­ci­ation united.

However, there are dangers that the body receiv­ing testi­mony from a group of neigh­bors will also become adept at recog­niz­ing repet­it­ive testi­mony and weigh that content less than they might other­wise. Informal conver­sa­tions I had with commis­sion­ers and legis­lat­ors during my travels repeatedly made this obser­va­tion. Spend­ing the time to develop authen­tic testi­mony, spoken from the heart, is much better than having a number of people deliver identical, scrip­ted testi­mony.

The public can and should play a role in the redis­trict­ing process. With some prepar­a­tion and coordin­a­tion among your neigh­bors, you too can be ready to step up to the podium and explain the contours of your communit­ies to the author­it­ies tasked with draw­ing new districts.