The Mapper's Tale: BJ Ellis of Shillington

Chris Satullo| November 26th, 2018

Image Credit: Kevin Patrick Robbins

BJ Ellis of Shillington in Berks County set out to draw a congressional map that divided county lines as rarely as possible. Then he found out how hard it was to combine that goal with others he cared about. Here's his report.

Q. Why did you decide to try your hand at DistrictBuilder?

Elections have always been a curious interest of mine. I've spent a lot of time reading into different ways people actually vote and how certain governments are put together, like how multi-member districts work. I'm also very interested in Maine's Ranked Voting system and really feel like it should be applied elsewhere.

I think there need to be fundamental changes in the way elections work to get more people involved instead of just  the loudest people in the room. I have some very specific thoughts on that, but that's for another time.

Part of that fundamental change would be districts drawn in a way that makes sense.  Pennslyvania has had the dubious honor of terribly drawn districts and I've always thought that had be changed.  I've always thought, "Ya know, I could do a better job myself. If only there was a website that had all of this information plugged in and you could just draw the maps yourself." 

And then boom ... you guys came along.  It was very fortuitous. 

I would love to tackle state government districts next or another state.

Q. What goals did you have in mind for your map when you started drawing? Why were those your priorities?

I drew two maps with two similar but different priorities.  First, I tried to group counties together with the hope of not breaking any up - other than the ones that were larger than a congressional district.  However this goal made it impossible to submit a map that worked. 

So I went about it again by county, being more open to break up counties when needed. 

The second map had the goal of grouping "communities" together.  So I first drew maps around the top cities in PA and worked out from there. 

For my county goal, I feel it is important that the county leadership and federal representatives should be all on the same page.  The less reps counties have to deal with, the more unified they could be. 

For the "community" goal I wanted to make sure that some areas had voices as it seems these areas were often targeted and broken up in previous maps. 

What wasn't my goal is make sure a certain number of districts were "red"and some were not.

Q. As you worked on your map, what kinds of tradeoffs or tough decisions did you find yourself having to weigh?

Making sure borders of districts didn't split up regions or were just along the outside of a major population center.

Being open to breaking up counties in the southeast of PA was rough.  But needed. 

Q. What's the part or quality of your map that you're happiest about?

I think my map is vastly superior than the 2010 efforts which I thought were unjustifiable. Of the two maps, I like the "community" goal  one more. 

Q. What's the part of your map that you had the most trouble with or that frustrated you the most?

Equalizing populations and making them as compact as possible was hard. 

Q. What District Builder tools did you find most helpful in making your map?

The population counters. 

Q. What advice/pro tips would you give someone who is about to log on to try to make a map on DistrictBuilder?

Set aside a few hours and watch the population numbers carefully.  First timers, pick a corner and work out from there. 

Q. Are you thinking of doing more maps? If yes, what different goals or approaches might you be taking with those?

I'd do every state in the union if someone paid me to. I honestly think my two goals are the best way to approach these maps at first.  I'm open to revaluation and tweaking.