Redistricting a state legislative map can increase a political party’s power base for a solid ten years. This is power they didn’t have to earn at the ballot box one local election at a time. It is power they give themselves by deft maneuvers and sleight of hand involving demographic and geographic nuances. Done correctly, it appears unimpeachable, except by the kind of experts no one will listen to because that would require the observer to think.
Gerrymandering must be so alluring to political party leaders, regardless of their party. Political parties must also view redistricting as a battle they have to win, but at the same time, they cannot appear to be at war. They have to appear like statespersons to lend their 10-year lock on power the appearance of legitimacy.
Make no mistake. It’s war. But, it will normally appear to be conducted as a normal ministerial process wrapped in a cloak of civility. Woe betides those innocents who inadvertently wander onto the gerrymandering battlefield, as there surely will be long knives involved.
Clean Missouri? Maybe . . .?
On Tuesday, November 6, 2018, Missouri voters passed Constitutional Amendment 1, more commonly known as Clean Missouri. One of the provisions of the amendment is to select a Nonpartisan State Demographer (NSD) to draw the new boundaries for state legislative districts. I first heard about the position from a state legislative issues podcast while I was driving through northern Alabama on my way home from a conference.
What’s the Best Technical Approach?
Initially, I considered applying for the NSD position if I could manage it with my current client work here at GeoVelo. I have clients I love, and I can’t abandon them. But I thought there might be a way to do the job and keep my current business operational. The next few weeks I spent looking at the redistricting literature concerning geographic information systems (GIS), as well as some election and gerrymandering case law. Unfortunately, there is an undercurrent of political bias in most of the academic articles on the topic. But the math and methods of calculation appeared to be solid. That led me to consider how I could work the math portions of this interesting GIS problem, and how I could get the job done as efficiently as possible. Thus, saving the taxpayers some dollars.
The Political Considerations
Shortly thereafter, I started to consider the politics that had to go with this “nonpartisan” position. Redistricting is a blood sport in most state legislatures. And I’ve been seeing, in various GIS forums that are closely aligned with the Democrat Party, numerous workshops of GIS people and election law attorneys over the past few years. They appear to be building a ground game for the redistricting that will follow the 2020 Census.
The Donkey’s View
I even went so far as to call a few of the political people I know to talk the idea over. I called Democrats and Republicans. I even called my good acquaintance, Rod Chapel, for advice and to talk about what the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wanted to see come out of the effort. The first time I met him was when Rod gave the address at the banquet of the Black Law Students Association at the University of Missouri School of Law. Maybe that was in 2012 or 2013. Anyway, he’s a powerful speaker, and I was impressed by the cogency of his views on race and democracy in America and Missouri. Believe it or not, we share many common views on ways we could make our democracy better, including fighting for the principles that everyone eligible should be able to vote and that each vote’s weight should be as equal as possible to everyone else’s vote. Rod was instrumental in organizing the Clean Missouri effort. Our conversation was polite, but he didn’t encourage my participation. But still, I had faith that I might be a good fit for the job.
The Elephant’s View
My talks with the Republicans that I knew went like this: “What are you talking about?” Over the course of the next two months, I talked to several fairly connected state-level Republicans who I went to law school with. It didn’t appear that the issue was on their radar—other than the fact that they didn’t see the Constitutional Amendment 1 effort as a pure-of-heart path toward a newly reformed and ethical state legislature. They saw it as a Democrat effort to tip the redistricting scale in their favor, wrapped up in a popular limit on the value of gifts legislators can receive under the new law.
A Naive Geographer
It pains me to admit my naivete, but I was still actually excited by the prospect of being able to serve my adopted home state in a highly technical position, and one that seemed to match up so tightly with my education, GIS skills, and professional experience. My next call was to the State Auditor’s Office. I asked to be put on the email notification list, so I’d know when they were taking applications. More about that later.
Aspirationally Speaking . . .
Ostensibly, the NSD will guide the State of Missouri’s legislative redistricting process once the results of the 2020 Census are reported back to the states. The process for selecting the NSD is complicated, as only the government can make it. Take a look for yourself.
The Job Qualifications
To be hired for the NSD position, one has to have a combination of relevant educational training and experience. In summary, the position requires a master’s degree in demography, geography, statistics, economics, sociology, urban planning, anthropology, epidemiology, or actuarial science, plus three or more years of professional experience in similar fields. (You can read the actual qualifications in Figure 1.) Alternatively, you can have a bachelor’s degree and five or more years of experience.
The Job Calls for a Unicorn’s Unicorn
The NSD position appears to call for someone who has not been politically active and someone who can leave their personal politics outside of the office and do the job without buckling under the inevitably high levels of political pressure and media scrutiny. Now, who among us in this day and age will have a knowledge of legislative redistricting, census data, federal election law, GIS, and some bureaucratic experience without holding any political opinions? The best you can hope for is someone who has not been very active in politics and who can examine their biases and do their best to keep those biases out of their work. In the best-case scenario, the NSD would be open about their political notions and be open to discussing their reasoning as various key decisions are made as the maps are being developed. However, that idea presupposes having a rational conversation with the public, press, and the political class. So, no. That won’t happen.
Should One Reward or Punish the People for Their Vote?
The people’s 2020 Missouri legislative district maps should accurately present, in geospatial format, as far as is possible, a geospatial expression of the exact text of Amendment 1. In other words, the NSD should not try to tip the scale toward any one political party or employ one’s own hubris to save us from ourselves. The NSD needs to accurately express the geographic aspirations of the amendment. When the NSD starts applying the principles expressed in the text of the amendment, and the result is a charlie foxtrot, that is how the map should be presented to the legislature. That’s democracy.
NSD, Transparency Please!
While the amendment requires the NSD to have a web portal where the public can offer comments on the process, the NSD should also push their work back out to the public in a way directly related to their progress. I think it is vital that, throughout the redistricting process, the NSD allows the public, press, Missouri’s political parties, and all the special interest groups to access all the geographic and demographic data that the NSD’s office is using to create the state’s new redistricting maps. No surprises.
Free the Geodatabases!
As a GIS guy with a website, I can assure you that it is very simple to place a copy of the electronic geospatial data files (GIS data) on the web where the citizens of Missouri can download it and perform their own analysis. The state even has a website for doing this kind of thing. It’s called the Missouri Spatial Data Information Service (MSDIS). And yes, I believe that many of the people of Missouri are capable of performing a competent analysis. However, the skeptic in me anticipates that there will be numerous reasons why the data cannot be posted in a usable electronic form. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
If They Won’t Share It, Sunshine It, Just Like Any Other Public Record
I’ve made more than a few requests for government-held GIS records, and I am familiar with damn near every way a unit of government will try to delay, obfuscate, or deny a record that is subject to a Sunshine Request. I assure everyone reading this post that the digital GIS files the NSD will develop are currently subject to the provisions of Missouri’s Sunshine Law. I also have a feeling that once this NSD ball gets rolling, there may be some effort by one or both parties to move the NSD’s GIS data into one of the classes of public records exempt from release. Tell them you read that here first.
The Show-Me State’s GIS Software of Choice
Missouri uses Esri software for the vast majority of its state-level GIS work. Happily, Esri offers a personal copy of some of the most powerful GIS software made for the low, low, low price of $100. They call it ArcGIS for Personal Use. So, all you government watchdogs and tech-savvy members of the press might consider getting a copy. You might also consider giving David Herzog at the University of Missouri School of Journalism a call. He’s a GIS-savvy reporter. I mentioned his work in an earlier post.
Uphill Both Ways . . .
I learned GIS on the mean streets of Kansas State University back in the early 1990s. That was when GIS was all command line, and by God, we liked it that way. Nowadays, you kids don’t have to go through that kind of hell. If you head over to YouTube, you can teach yourself 90% of everything there is to know about GIS.
If you are somehow one of the 10 people who read this post, and you need help going after the data during the redistricting process, please contact me at Chris.Dunn@GeoVelo.com.
Zack “Coincidence” Gilford
About a week or two after I made contact with the Office of the Missouri State Auditor, some strange things started to happen. Now, I’ve been around the local-politics block a few times, and I think I’ve developed a pretty solid “these sketchy things are obviously connected” detector. In November 2018, a mysterious Mr. Zack Gilford emailed me. See Figure 2.
Shady Is as Shady Does
After a few emails, he was presenting himself as a potential client. We set up a time to talk. Then he called me a day before our scheduled meeting claiming “we’re a large land development company in Cole County, Missouri,” and he had been referred to me because “there are not many people who do what you do.” I should note that Mr. Gilford’s accent, tone, and demeanor didn’t match anyone from the Cole County, Missouri, that I know. It did, however, match nicely with that of the stereotypical shady Bronx, New York, loan collector from the quintessential 1970s TV cop show.
During this period, I noticed an uptick in intrusion attempts on my work network and several devices. Of course, the timing could be entirely coincidental.
“It’s All a Pretext . . .”
In our two telephone conversations, Mr. Gilford acted as if he had viewed my business website but then started talking about my social media presence. The guy did not come across as someone who knew much about land development or even simple mapping. He came across as someone contemptuous of anyone living in the great American hinterland. When I asked what kind of mapping services he was looking for, he couldn’t answer. Then he went into conspiracy mode and started to use the word pretext frequently. Incidentally, he doesn’t like the owner of WhatsApp for some reason.
Eventually, Mr. Gilford informed me, in essence, that I was a rube who had posted far too many personal political opinions on social media to play in the public arena. So, let me guess, someone doesn’t want me to apply for the NSD job. He made that clear. It’s kind of disheartening that we’ve sunk to that level in America. But I guess I was a little naive to expect civility and transparency in a nonpartisan technical position. After all, this is just redistricting. It can’t be very important, right?
An Open Invitation to Zack
Mr. Gilford, if that is your real name, you are invited to join this conversation and share the results of your investigation. I’ll even publish it here on GeoVelo. Let the chips fall where they may. But first, you need to tell us who you work for, deal?
Breaking the Law?
I’m wondering if emailing a business and presenting yourself as a potential client, when you are obviously lying, isn’t a crime? Of course, the US Supreme Court in Frazier v Cupp held that the government can lie to you; you just can’t lie to the government. This leads me to believe that whoever hired Mr. Gilford may have also committed a crime if he was working for anyone but a proper law enforcement agency. Lying all the time seems to be the new norm in American life and politics.
Brilliant Way to Hide in Plain Sight!
One last Zack note: I did a little googling, and there is a rising actor named Zack Gilford (Figure 3). I’m assuming the name of a minor celebrity is a brilliant way to hide from the Internets.
Well played, Bad Zack.
Good luck with your career, Good Zack.
Contact Bad Zack
Mr. Gilford’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and his phone number is (214) 716-8354.
I still have a few questions about the job that I have not been able to answer after doing a little research.
- Who does the position report to, if anyone? Once confirmed in the position by the legislative leaders, does the position have any accountability to anyone?
- What is the office budget, allocated staff level, and location? None of those details seem to be available either. It seems to me that these are important details.
- What is the salary? I’ve run a few searches, and I’ve yet to find out if it has been given a classification under the Missouri civil service system. I wonder what type of person would leave their current job to take one with so much risk and with no idea of the pay.
- How long is the position going to be funded? It seems to me that the people of Missouri will need this position on their payroll for a max of two years. Please, someone, tell me whether we’re going to pay for this person for the eight years between the end of their work and the next redistricting.
- What will the NSD do after they get their job done? Hopefully, they’re going to archive their data, turn in their keys, and then go back to being a happy and productive citizen.
- Legal indemnification: My awesome Mizzou Law legal education* has me wondering if the NSD is walking into a nightmare of never-ending lawsuits by one disgruntled advocacy group after another. I cannot envision a world where no one brings a suit naming the NSD in their official capacity. Some dirty players may even bring suit personally against the NSD. So, does the job come with some form of indemnification pledge or protection, and will the NSD’s legal expenses be fully covered? Or will the NSD be the recipient of numerous harassment lawsuits, as I suspect will happen? I wouldn’t touch the job unless I had a huge legal indemnification insurance policy. I’m sure it won’t be cheap, if the NSD can even get someone to insure them.
- The chosen ones: Our NSD has likely already been preselected or is in a small group of the preselected. And our NSD will probably come out of academia, likely even academic journalism.
- Hiding in plain sight: Most of the serious NSD contenders will already be in some form of government service, so the NSD position won’t disrupt their retirement credits or plans.
- Non-public-sector applicants: In case you don’t know this, there are GIS people working in the private sector. They likely make more than this position pays, and they are unlikely to risk alienating their current employer or client base by applying. Knowing what I know now, I don’t think there is any way of returning to the private side after such a move.
- They shall be squeaky clean: Our NSD contenders will have immaculate social media presences and no history of political thought on social media. Think of an Aunt Bee-type with a good grasp of geospatial technology.
- The media vibe: If the Missouri political press aggressively and negatively covers the position, then somehow a neutral candidate or a candidate with a Republican bias slipped through the process to become the NSD.
- Illusions of transparency: No matter who gets appointed, the NSD’s official website will offer the appearance of transparency, but the raw GIS data files and their correspondence will be hard, if not impossible, to obtain. It’s painful to hang your work out to the world. Even the most neutral NSD we can imagine will be punished for their good works.
- Enigma: Be on the look-out for a non-official backdoor communications method, like certain past governors used with their staffs.
- Stalling works: If Sunshine Requests for the data are not properly fulfilled by the NSD’s office, the lawsuits to obtain the data will be strung out long past the time the legislature adopts the new redistricting plan. Thus, the other side will move to have the case dismissed as moot.
- Timing is everything: As the Missouri State Auditor will release the received applications for the position to the public, the serious contenders will apply late in the game. That will limit the time the press and the opposing parties have to investigate their backgrounds.
- Sharks in the digital water: If you have not been preselected by one of the parties and you apply for the NSD position, prepare for multiple intrusion attempts on your personal and professional computers. As I mentioned previously, around the time I was talking with Mr. Gilford, I noticed an uptick in penetration attempts on my network. So, you might want to update your computer security protocols.
- The wild card: Citizen and objective journalism combined with independent GIS analysis of the NSD’s data could be a game changer.
You Should Apply!
So, now you hopefully know more about the NSD position. You can apply here. I believe they are taking application through December 4, 2019. Good luck!
- Nope: I’ve completely ruled out applying for the job.
- Citizen-skeptic: I plan on keeping an eye on the process, sharing my observations, and performing my own analysis of the various plans proposed.
- Resources: Here at GeoVelo, I will curate a collection of resources to help others evaluate this process.
Another Damn Disclaimer
I promised my subscribers that I would strive for transparency in this blog. And I want to point out that while some may view this post as being anti-Democrat Party, it’s just as likely that if the political tables were turned the Republicans would use the same maneuvers. So, in an effort to be as candid as I promised, below I present my vast political history.
- Over my life, I’ve made maybe six or seven political contributions to candidates in both the Democrat and Republican parties. Mostly, they were to people I personally knew and respected.
- As an unpaid volunteer, I’ve built websites and performed some GIS work for several local-level political candidates. They were always people I respected.
- In an act of frustration, I gave the Libertarian party $100 in 2016.
- I have never made a campaign contribution of more than $100, except for the time I bought an item at a political fundraiser for $160.
- To the best of my knowledge, most of the candidates I have donated to lost.
- I reject the commonly held political rationalization that “the ends justify the means.” But unfortunately, I don’t have the answer on how to fix the system. I do have one really good idea on campaign finances I’ll share in the future.
- I have no political aspirations, and I will NEVER run for elected office.
* I am quite proud to say that I was at the very top of the bottom half of my Mizzou Law class of 2014.
Link of the Week
Check out “A Double Standard in the Law of Deception: When Lies to the Government Are Penalized and Lies by the Government Are Protected.” It’s an article published by Bonnie Trunley in the American Criminal Law Review. (See an excerpt in Figure 4.)