In one month in 2021, Texas lawmakers redrew political maps for the state’s congressional, House, Senate and Board of Education districts. The maps were drawn to keep Republicans in power for the next decade. The maps entrench rural, white electoral power — despite new census numbers pointing to Texans of color as the main force behind the state’s population growth. This tool allows readers to search their address to see how the new districts will affect their community.
During a whirlwind one-month special legislative session in the fall of 2021, Texas lawmakers redrew the state’s political maps. The process is opaque and inaccessible but impacts every resident, including the millions of Texans of color who are the main force behind the state’s population growth. This project was designed to show readers exactly how the districts they live in were redrawn, and they appreciated it. Reader feedback included:
– A reader named Gabe was effusive over twitter: “This is legit one of the coolest/most useful things I’ve see” (https://twitter.com/TxGabeGrantham/status/1451559468647473152)
– Other people on twitter called this “great”, and still others said it was “fantastic work”, “well executed”, a “great tool”, “excellent tool”, “incredible tool”, “really, really helpful”
– Jack noted “This is so much better and more user friendly than the state’s map. Bless you Texas Tribune ” (https://twitter.com/jflagler/status/1451598277103788036)
– The Houston Bureau Chief for The New York Times called it “a cool and very useful tool”
– Several state lawmakers shared it, noting how helpful it was
– A Reddit reader thanked us for all the work we’ve done on this topic
Redistricting is a story about data — legislators use detailed census counts to draw maps with surgical precision. Here’s how the Tribune built a data analysis process to support our work.
First, data reporters, editors and reporters developed a framework to evaluate each proposed map when it came out. To save time, we set up a Klaxon bot to alert us when a new map was released for analysis. We built a parser in Python to get the state’s strangely formatted files into a more legible format. This means we could get data into user-friendly, easy-to-compare spreadsheets for reporters within minutes, and use these files to answer their questions on how the districts changed over time. All this work enabled us to write fast, analysis-packed stories like this one as soon as the new maps were released.
All this led to our district lookup page. This is a very reader-focused tool: We assume almost no one knows their state House, Senate or congressional district numbers, but everyone knows their address. The tool is powered by an address-to-district conversion API that we previously used for election results pages. The lookup also has all of the demographic data that we analyzed earlier — in simple HTML charts, because not all geographic data needs to be mapped. The maps in the project were created with Mapbox.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The hardest part of this project was the deadline — the Legislature compressed the normally five-month-long map-drawing process into a one-month special session. We also worked with Mapbox to adapt our maps to work within the technical constraints of their static map API and make sure the page worked seamlessly on mobile.
What can others learn from this project?
This page was designed first and foremost for average Texans, people who will vote in a dramatically different political landscape for the next decade. We used technology to make it easy for them to find the information that they need. Every state should have a resource like this, and we welcome copycats. With permission, encouragement and advice, SpotlightPA published a very similar redistricting comparison tool for Pennsylvania’s new legislative districts a few months after ours came out.
The entire redistricting project required very careful planning and coordination across teams. We worked with politics editors and reporters to plan every part of this project, from the original analysis questions to the final presentation. Our audience team was invaluable for sharing the resource far and wide, and our engineering team helped debug the more technical aspects of the lookup page. A data team has to be closely integrated with the entire organization — we’re stronger together.