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The Potential Exploitation of GIS for Political Gain

Potential for Misuse of Mapping Technology
It sounds like the makings of a movie: greedy politicians moving district lines for their own benefit. But with GIS and a lack of regulations, it is entirely feasible. A Dartmouth researcher says that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a potent political tool, but it may be used to manipulate voting district lines. Professor Benjamin Forest says that GIS allows states to create districts with very precise political and demographic characteristics.
"On one hand, the technology has been very useful for voting rights enforcement, and particularly for creating districts with African American or Hispanic majorities," he says. "But GIS also increases the potential for sophisticated gerrymandering. In most states, legislatures control redistricting, and they typically use it for partisan advantage and for incumbent protection. The ability to evaluate and predict voting behavior and to then create districts based on these analyses can give political parties more control over election results."
Regulations Needed
State legislatures have tremendous incentives to use the partisan data from GIS, but few incentives to create competitive election districts.  Nonpartisan redistricting commissions could solve the problem, and Forest refers to Arizona as a model (California and Ohio are also considering redistricting commissions). Commissions can use GIS to create districts that are relatively representative and that provide for spirited political competition.
"Just having a commission is not enough, however. States can design redistricting commissions well, to insulate them from partisan pressures, or they can design commissions poorly, to simply create proxies for partisan interests. In any case, even a well-designed commission needs a set of clear rules for redistricting," says Forest.
GIS technology can be used ethically in redistricting matters, but new policies and regulations are needed to ensure balance.

By Neil Whitehall
Get GIS Jobs, Contributing Editor

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