Op-Ed

Principles for Transparency and Public Participation in Redistricting

Micah Altman, Thomas E. Mann, Michael P. McDonald, and Norman J. Ornstein

Scholars from the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute are collaborating to promote transparency in redistricting. In January 2010, an advisory board of experts and representatives of good government groups was convened in order to articulate principles for transparent redistricting and to identify barriers to the public and communities who wish to create redistricting plans. This document summarizes the principles for transparency in redistricting that were identified during that meeting.

Benefits of a Transparent, Participative Redistricting Process

The drawing of electoral districts is among the most easily manipulated and least transparent systems in democratic governance. All too often, redistricting authorities maintain their monopoly by imposing high barriers to transparency and public participation. Increasing transparency and public participation can be a powerful counterbalance by providing the public with information similar to that which is typically only available to official decision makers, which can lead to different outcomes and better representation.

Increasing transparency can empower the public to shape the representation for their communities, promote public commentary and discussion about redistricting, inform legislators and redistricting authorities which district configurations their constituents and the public support, and educate the public about the electoral process.  

Fostering public participation can enable the public to identify their neighborhoods and communities, promote the creation of alternative maps, and facilitate an exploration of a wide range of representational possibilities. The existence of publicly-drawn maps can provide a measuring stick against which an official plan can be compared, and promote the creation of a “market” for plans that support political fairness and community representational goals.

Transparency Principles

All redistricting plans should include sufficient information so the public can verify, reproduce, and evaluate a plan. Transparency thus requires that:

  • Redistricting plans must be available in non-proprietary formats.
  • Redistricting plans must be available in a format allowing them to be easily read and analyzed with commonly-used geographic information software.
  • The criteria used as a basis for creating plans and individual districts must be clearly documented.

Creating and evaluating redistricting plans and community boundaries requires access to demographic, geographic, community, and electoral data. Transparency thus requires that:

  • All data necessary to create legal redistricting plans and define community boundaries must be publicly available, under a license allowing reuse of these data for non-commercial purposes.
  • All data must be accompanied by clear documentation stating the original source, the chain of ownership (provenance), and all modifications made to it.

Software systems used to generate or analyze redistricting plans can be complex, impossible to reproduce, or impossible to correctly understand without documentation. Transparency thus requires that:

  • Software used to automatically create or improve redistricting plans must be either open-source or provide documentation sufficient for the public to replicate the results using independent software.
  • Software used to generate reports that analyze redistricting plans must be accompanied by documentation of data, methods, and procedures sufficient for the reports to be verified by the public.

Services offered to the public to create or evaluate redistricting plans and community boundaries are often opaque and subject to misinterpretation unless adequately documented. Transparency thus requires that:

  • Software necessary to replicate the creation or analysis of redistricting plans and community boundaries produced by the service must be publicly available.
  • The service must provide the public with the ability to make available all published redistricting plans and community boundaries in non-proprietary formats that are easily read and analyzed with commonly-used geographic information software.
  • Services must provide documentation of any organizations providing significant contributions to their operation.

Promoting Public Participation

New technologies provide opportunities to broaden public participation in the redistricting process. These technologies should aim to realize the potential benefits described and be consistent with the articulated transparency principles.

Redistricting is a legally and technically complex process. District creation and analysis software can encourage broad participation by: being widely accessible and easy to use; providing mapping and evaluating tools that help the public to create legal redistricting plans, as well as maps identifying local communities; be accompanied by training materials to assist the public to successfully create and evaluate legal redistricting plans and define community boundaries; have publication capabilities that allow the public to examine maps in situations where there is no access to the software; and promoting social networking and allow the public to compare, exchange and comment on both official and community-produced maps.


Official Endorsement from Organizations – Americans for Redistricting Reform, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Campaign Legal Center, Center for Governmental Studies, Center for Voting and Democracy, Common Cause, Demos, and the League of Women Voters of the United States.

Attending board members – Nancy Bekavac, Director, Scientists and Engineers for America; Derek Cressman, Western Regional Director of State Operations, Common Cause; Anthony Fairfax, President, Census Channel; Representative Mike Fortner (R), Illinois General Assembly; Karin Mac Donald, Director, Statewide Database, Berkeley Law, University of California, Berkeley; Leah Rush, Executive Director, Midwest Democracy Network; Mary Wilson, President, League of Women Voters.

Editors Micah Altman, Harvard University and the Brookings Institution; Thomas E. Mann, Brookings Institution; Michael P. McDonald, George Mason University and the Brookings Institution; Norman J. Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute.

This project is funded by a grant from the Sloan Foundation to the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute.