President Barack Obama spent the last chunk of his 2016 State of the Union Address talking about how to “fix our politics.” His first solution? Stop gerrymandering, the shaping of congressional districts to guarantee electoral outcomes. “We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” he said.
At least one geographer has heeded Obama’s call to action. Using data from the US Census Bureau, Alasdair Rae, a geographer and urban planner at Sheffield University, built maps of every congressional district—all 435 of them—to show just how screwed up they really are. When Rae maps them individually, removed from the context of their surrounding districts, you can really see the extent of the problem. “There are some shapes that are quite egregious,” Rae says.
The worst offender? “North Carolina was and is often used as the archetype,” Rae says. His map shows the state’s 12th district undulating northwest to southeast like an eight-bit snake. Now, technically gerrymandering is against the law—unless topography gets in the way, districts are supposed to be contiguous regions. But the 12th…well, look at it. Its irregular blocks of land all connect, but only at their corners. Legislators call this “point contiguity,” and when you see it on a map, you can bet something dicey is going on…
Rae’s maps alone won’t end gerrymandering. But the ease with which he made them might hint at some weapons in the fight. In Florida, for example, when the Supreme Court ordered the congressional map redrawn, the trial court ignored legislator ideas in favor of a proposal from Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. In Virginia, after the state supreme court found a district unconstitutional, the court’s special master received proposals from anyone who was interested — crowdmapping! — in coming up with a new version. Today, at least five more states have ballot initiatives calling for independent commissions to take over redistricting from political parties. “If you want to get equal and fair representation in Congress or in any legislative body,” Rae says, “then sometimes you’re going to have to draw some weird shapes on maps,” The fight against gerrymandering is the purplest of purple issues. It’s not Republicans versus Democrats, but voters—and mapmakers — versus both.
Canadian courts, Canadian politicians, are more courageous than American – on this issue. As people became more outraged over politicians playing the gerrymandering game, a movement started in Manitoba grew into a federal change. Change over to an independent body.
Given the usual American states rights crap, it will probably take us another few decades to achieve that level of reason. But, we must if we are to achieve anything approaching democratic representation.