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Draw the Lines PA wants you to fix the state’s gerrymandered electoral map

You can even win some cash doing so. It's democracy, gamified.

The BQE at dusk, by Flickr user RoeyAhram [Creative Commons]

A seven-year-old piece of software built by Azavea just got an overhaul and is hitting the internet again to teach Pennsylvanians how to the fix the state’s famously rigged electoral map.

As part of Draw the Lines PA, a civic education and engagement effort sponsored by good government nonprofit Committee of Seventy, people can draw maps using Azavea’s open source software DistrictBuilder.

To encourage participation, the group will be hosting mapping competitions twice a year through 2021, with cash prizes that run up to $4,500.

The objective of the three-year initiative, said Draw the Lines PA project director Chris Satullo, is to demystify redistricting and gerrymandering, giving students and voters the confidence and knowledge needed to take a crack at crafting their own maps.

“Ultimately, the goal is to demonstrate that this process shouldn’t be done in a dark room but should be open to the voters,” said Satullo, the former WHYY newsroom leader and longtime Inquirer editor who is now a civic engagement consultant.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that Pennsylvania’s electoral map had been so unfairly drawn that it “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state’s constitution. A new map, created by the court, will be used for the midterm elections.

So, that fixed everything, right? Wrong. Election maps are redrawn after each federal census, like the one happening in 2020, which means the current electoral map is only good for two more elections, and then the state will have to redraw its map from scratch. The hope is that, through education and practice, partisan intent can be removed from the process.

And though the now-abolished electoral map was found by academic experts to skew Republican, Satullo says the need to redraw the map fairly is not about party politics.

“Committee of 70 and Draw the Line are ferociously non-partisan,” Satullo said. “We’re not looking to turn a red map blue but rather help voters find their proper role creating maps that represent their common sense values. This is a question of who’s inside the room and who’s left outside.”

A screenshot of the mapping tool.

Draw a map that makes more sense with DistrictBuilder. (Screenshot)

South Philly design shop P’unk Ave crafted the initiative’s site, which gives teachers tools and content to guide students through the map creation process. For those looking to join the project, a section on participation splits up tasks by time availability: from a few minutes to several days.

Meanwhile, at Callowhill mapping firm Azavea, devs have been at work since February revamping DistrictBuilder, the first version of which went live in 2011 for the Public Mapping ProjectGeorge Mason University professor Michael McDonald and Harvard researcher Micah Altman contributed work to the platform, which has been used to run mapping competitions in 11 states.

But what constitutes a “good map” of Pennsylvania? There’s not a single correct answer, Satullo explains.

“A good map is one where you thought about what values you want it to reflect,” said the project director. “Maps embody values. For example, if what you care about most is creating competitive districts, where candidates have to fight hard to win, you can do that. There’s not one perfect algorithm: There’s one that achieves its goals.”

Diversity also plays a role here: Draw the Lines is trying to get all kinds of people, from all across the state, to etch out map proposals, including students from school districts where access to digital tools might be scarce.

Companies: Azavea / Committee of Seventy / P’unk Ave

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