Redistricting options grow with technology

The Political Game

Mapping: Affordable software is making the process of redrawing legislative districts a game anyone with a computer can play.

May 08, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

IT'S THE Great Redistricting Game, and anybody can play.

All it takes is $3,500 and a computer, and you can play God - or governor, a position that in this state is almost as powerful - with the careers of Maryland's legislators.

That's what it costs to purchase the software state leaders are using to carve Maryland into eight congressional and 47 legislative districts.

With the click of a mouse, you can pick up precincts and move them from one district to another, getting nearly instant population recalculations. It's the same program Gov. Parris N. Glendening has on a terminal on his desk - although the cost does not include the high-tech, swiveling projection screen the governor uses when he wants to make visiting legislators feel faint.

Although $3,500 might not seem cheap, it puts the redistricting process within reach of many more players than in the last redistricting 10 years ago. Back then, a slower, less-sophisticated redistricting program could cost 10 times as much.

Karl Aro, director of the Department of Legislative Services, has been through a few redistrictings. He recalls the one 10 years ago, when the software program ran on an oversized desktop computer. And the one 20 years ago, when the state had to commandeer a mainframe at the University of Maryland.

He's impressed with the Maptitude program the state has bought from Caliper Corp. in Massachusetts, one of the two leading providers of redistricting software. It runs on a Gateway Solo laptop.

"It's light years ahead. The software can do so much more, so much more quickly," he said. "It's much more powerful than we had 10 years ago."

He demonstrated how the program can zoom in from a statewide view to an individual census-block level. He clicked on a northern Montgomery County census block, and up came the information that 29 people live there - all white. The software can also pinpoint where each legislator lives, making it easier to protect friendly incumbents and smite antagonists.

Aro expects his department, which serves legislators of both parties, to be drawing maps for a lot of members this year.

That doesn't mean those senators and delegates will get the districts they want. The technological development doesn't shift the power from the people who hold the cards in redistricting decisions - Glendening, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor.

But it does make it likely that the Big Three will be seeing many more proposed maps this time around.

The Maryland Republican Party has the Maptitude program, too. GOP lawmakers will be using it to draw maps that will undoubtedly be ignored by the ruling Democrats. But Republicans hope their proposals would be more pleasing to a judge in the event of a court challenge. Political consultants around the country are also finding the software affordable.

Lisa Handley, a partner in Frontier International Electoral Consulting in Potomac, has a copy. It has all the Maryland data loaded into it, though the firm has yet to sign up a client in the state.

Handley says firms are choosing between two leading programs - Maptitude and AutoBound, marketed by Digital Engineering Corp. of Columbia.

Fred Hedjazi, president of Digital, still feels a bit stung by the state's decision to use software prepared by a Massachusetts company. (Caliper submitted a lower bid.) But he's done quite well in selling his program to local governments in Maryland.

He's seeing a lot of interest in his product, which also costs about $3,500, among nongovernment clients. "We have a lot of private consultants who are getting in the mix," he said.

Hedjazi said individual legislators around the country are also buying his program - though he doesn't know of any in Maryland.

He thinks the reason is that lawmakers have less say over redistricting here than in other states.

In other redistricting news, Maryland's four Democratic members of the U.S. House have been meeting to try to come up with a mutually acceptable congressional redistricting plan that will also pass muster with Glendening.

Taylor is hoping that by developing a proposal, Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, Albert R. Wynn, Steny H. Hoyer and Elijah E. Cummings can persuade the governor to call a special session this fall to approve a congressional redistricting map. So far, Glendening and Miller have been cool toward the idea.

Governor isn't ready to step down, he says

Rumors have been circulating in political circles that Glendening will soon step down from office. What's surprising is that otherwise rational people have been taking them seriously.

Asked about the reports yesterday, the governor categorically denied them. "I've got months of work to do," he said.

One reason no serious Parris-watcher believes the stories is that Glendening is openly gleeful about his role in redistricting. "We're going to have great fun," he said.

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