Let's Elect a Cartographer


By Joe "The Nerd" Ferraro | January 24, 2018 Pennsylvania dealt a blow to gerrymandering on Monday as the state Supreme Court sent congressional maps back to the legislature to be rewritten and approved by the governor.

With an extremely compressed timeline for the legislature to do their job, the Supreme Court has opened the possibility that a map submitted by citizens would be considered as a replacement:

…should the General Assembly not submit a congressional districting plan on or before February 9, 2018, or should the Governor not approve the General Assembly’s plan on or before February 15, 2018, this Court shall proceed expeditiously to adopt a plan based on the evidentiary record developed in the Commonwealth Court. In anticipation of that eventuality, the parties shall have the opportunity to be heard; wit, all parties and intervenors may submit to the Court proposed remedial districting plans on or before February 15, 2018…

To this end, the Committee of Seventy in Philadelphia has set up a link to a map drawing for a contest to draw the maps.  (The Committee of Seventy ran contests for council maps in Philadelphia in 2011.)

Knowing how the Pennsylvania Legislature works, chances are the Supreme Court has just gotten the job as self-appointed arbiters of what makes a good map.

This is not a bad thing, since they are elected officials. They have the power of the ballot box behind any decision they make.

Why not take this a step further, though, and use the Committee of Seventy's drawing competition for real reform?

Neither the courts, nor the legislature, nor the governor should ever be allowed to create this mess again.

If the courts select a map generated by this contest or by someone walking in off the street, it will prove that citizens can get involved in a real and fundamental manner to affect change.

The problem is not, “How do we draw a map?”, but “How do we get buy-in on the best map?”.

Drawing a map is straightforward tech-wise. Essentially, officials are taking population centers called Census Tracts and playing with them much as a child would play with building blocks. There are big blocks called counties that can be broken down into towns and cities that break down into precincts and into smaller groups – the Census Tract - that may be the size of a neighborhood. It just becomes a game of totaling up the tracts for communities. A pile of blocks is a congressional district.

There is a seemingly infinite number of combinations (not technically infinite, but it may as well be).

To say there is one program that can pick the perfect map would be a lie. It depends on what you are looking for. Do you want to reflect community values over creating maps to favor one party over another? There are always competing agendas.

So, how do we decide on who gets to run the government?

There are always people with good ideas and good agendas. We pick them using the electoral process. By slightly modifying the existing process used to elect representatives we can elect the maps or the authors of the maps – called Cartographers.

What is an Elected Cartographer?

We create a non-partisan State Row Office called a Cartographer. A State Row Office is an elected official falling under the Executive Branch of government, but needs to be independent of both the legislature and the governor. Attorney General, Auditor General, and Treasurer fall into this category in Pennsylvania.  These offices have the authority an election brings with them.

We need 3 Cartographers - one for each map: Congressional, Senatorial, and Legislative.

We give each a salary (or prize) of roughly $150,000 for the services provided to the State. If you can convince the majority of a state of 13,000,000 people to vote for your map, you are a professional that needs to be compensated as such.

Anytime you put money on the table, you get real competition. Let’s use a free market economic solution to get the best possible maps.

How do we elect the Cartographer?

When you run for any office you file a petition that has the signatures of people willing to give you a shot to run. To run for Cartographer, you would also have to submit a map along with your signatures.

The map would be submitted to the Department of State (the part of the government responsible for running elections). The submitted map would have to meet all current regulations from the State and Federal Government to be allowed on the ballot. Challenges can also be filed against suspect maps.  (An expedited appeals process would be employed for any maps the Department of State knocks out of competition.) Preforming a gatekeeper function here eliminates the parade of lawsuits that come after the fact.

The Department of State website will also have a section devoted to displaying the maps to the public. An open primary election would be run allow at least 3 maps from each category to reach the general election.  Having more than 2 maps prevents the major parties from overwhelming the process. Overly partisan maps will be exposed.

But what about the detractors to this idea?

Some folks have dismissed this idea because it is too hard to look at maps. It is also too hard to look at nine school board candidates in a local town, too. But we set up elections so that we have a republican form of governance – meaning we elect people to do the work for us. But the point is everyone stands for election.  The authority granted to an office holder comes from that election. It does not matter if the school board member won by two votes or 200 from an election where fifteen or 1500 votes were cast.

Why not have a special appointed commission instead of an election?

The problem is who gets to decide who is on the committee. In a current bill in PA, SB22, party leaders actually get veto power on who can be on the committee. The committee operates on an extremely compressed timeline in public. If the committee cannot agree on maps the job goes to a committee of 1 appointed person. That is the exact opposite of a democratic or republican process. Remember, appointed people do not have the authority granted from a ballot box.

Should someone from the other side of my state get to vote on my side of the state?

Yes, you both live in the same state.  You affect each other.

There are so many maps – which to choose?

Remember, this is an election.  Candidates are going to be pulling or gathering around certain maps.  Allow the process to work.  You will see people reviewing maps because there will be so much riding on which maps are selected.

Will we get better maps than we have now?

Seriously? Have you seen what we got?

We can’t let these people do this again.

Elect the maps.

Joe The Nerd Ferraro is the owner of www.FindANerd.com,  a computer services company based in Audubon, Pennsylvania. He also writes on www.JoeTheNerd.com and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/joethenerdferraro).  You can reach him by email at BigNerd@FindANerd.com and can follow him on twitter @JoeTheNerd.