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What The Heck Is Gerrymandering?

And how can we actually fix it?

One looks like a starved squirrel that learned to walk like a human. Another looks like a King Kong–size chipmunk being chased by a toothless man with a mullet. In Texas, you can find one that looks like a personified tree stump holding the head of the toothless man with a mullet.

These are but a handful of America’s strangest-looking electoral districts, and they're a result of a confusing political tradition of redistricting that takes place every 10 years. Redistricting is usually conducted by state legislatures, which are supposed to look at how a state has changed in the past decade and carve up a new set of districts for congressional and state legislators accordingly. The goal is to make sure that each elected official is representing people who have common political needs, and that together the districts elect people who accurately reflect the state’s demographics and concerns.

Think of it like this: A math teacher splits her room into sections depending on students’ favorite type of Oreo, sticking the Double Stuft lovers over by the window, the Peanut Butter partisans far from the White-Chocolate-Dipped defenders, and leaving those who prefer Birthday Cake stuck in the corner where they won’t bother anyone. The teacher then only gives people in each section their cookie of choice when they do well on pop quizzes throughout the year. Next semester, she might learn that Oreos are over, and that students refuse to eat them. It would be easier just to keep giving out Oreos, but if she wants to be fair, she’ll have to set up the room based on the newest snack preferences. Even if she appeases the kids, however, you can be sure that parents are going to complain anyway, asking why their lone apple lover isn’t being represented.

That’s redistricting, although the real exercise is even more complicated, frustrating, and political: trying to make districts that offer fair representation for minorities, make elections competitive, don’t look like a Rorschach blot, and also keep in mind that things like rivers and mountains exist.

Which brings us back to those districts we mentioned earlier — the ones that look like they sprang out of a Disney movie from hell. Sometimes those districts can be a result of legislators trying hard to make sure that the state’s congressional delegation reflects the state’s demographics. Other times, it’s a clear sign that state legislators are trying hard to make sure they can keep their jobs. You might have heard this process described as gerrymandering, a portmanteau that sounds more like a spell than a political grievance. It comes from the name of Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who was responsible for the first case of shady redistricting. The resulting district looked remarkably like a salamander.

There are plenty of debates about the impact, or lack thereof, of gerrymandering on elections and the current political climate: How many states aren’t letting minorities have their rightful say in elections because of how districts are split up, especially now that the pre-clearance part of the Voting Rights Act is dead? Should everyone chill out about gerrymandering because the numbers show that it doesn’t have much of an effect on the lack of competition in congressional elections? Is there even an ideal way to draw districts in the first place?

Regardless of what the data says, there are definitely cases of unfair districts that leave many people assuming that the system is working against them when they see that legislators are basically choosing their own voters, or when they only hear about redistricting when newly created maps are challenged in court. This isn’t the sexiest topic, you may be realizing, which means that it only makes the news when something goes wrong.

"New maps do more to inspire confidence," says Michael Li at the Brennan Center for Justice, adding that "fairer districts also make it easier for women and people of color to run. It levels the playing field." He adds, "There is the view that the system is rigged, which leads people to ask, ‘Why turn out?’ I hear it especially from young people. It just discourages any kind of participation."

That’s why many states have decided to let a group of independent outsiders draw those maps instead. This year, a few more states are considering joining the pack — especially after the Supreme Court recently gave the idea a thumbs-up — or at least trying to figure out new ways to teach voters about this complex corner of American politics.

Sims: Redistricting Expansion Pack

Legislative maps have been in and out of the courts in North Carolina this year, as judges try to decide whether they fail to offer accurate minority representation. In practice, gerrymandering doesn’t only preserve the status quo, it can also take voters who already don’t have a big role in politics and find ways to make their opinions even more invisible. It can shuffle Latino voters into a series of districts, diluting their voices and making it unlikely that those voters will ever be able to elect someone who cares about their interests, or it can stuff a lot of black voters into one district rather than creating a diverse number of districts that might be more competitive during elections.

Only 8 percent of races during the state’s 2014 midterms were considered competitive in North Carolina, the News & Observer reports. The Republican legislature — which made the maps being examined — has considered a few redistricting bills, but none of them have passed. Since nothing is likely to change anytime soon, North Carolina Common Cause and Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy decided to team up and imagine what it would be like if a redistricting committee magically fell on the state. The effort recruited 10 retired judges who will try out new redistricting software and make mock districts when the group meets next month.

The problem with teaching voters about redistricting, says Tom Ross, the former UNC president who’s heading this project as a fellow at the Sanford School, is that "people don’t understand we even do it." They only ever hear about it when there’s a lawsuit, which leads people to view it as "an unfairness." So regardless of what happens with the simulation, he’s planning on continuing to try to educate the public on the process. They might even do videos; "someone suggested getting a bunch of cats and having them talk about redistricting," he says.

If state legislatures won’t stop gerrymandering, voters are more than happy to help

The main difficulty with stopping gerrymandering is that state legislators are usually loath to willingly give up power once they’ve got it. Voters don’t have that problem, which is why ballot initiatives come in handy.

In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 20, which gave redistricting power to the Citizens Redistricting Commission, a group tasked with trying to draw new districts without paying attention to politics, if possible. Arizona voters pushed for a redistricting commission back in 2000, and a handful of other states use the same system today. These commissions didn’t turn redistricting into a puppy parade; plenty of people argued that the new maps were still unfair (including many politicians who missed the old process). It will take a couple more election cycles before we know the exact effect of these commissions, but people seem to think that they are fairer than what they replaced.

Illinois and South Dakota are two of the states trying to replicate these changes in 2016. The group behind the Illinois Independent Map Amendment, which would create an independent commission with 11 members, submitted double the required number of signatures for their petitions last week — the line of boxes was reportedly 35 feet long and weighed 1,800 pounds.

A March poll showed that 64 percent of voters were in favor of the change, although the proposed ballot initiative has received pushback — most ardently from the legislators currently in charge of redistricting, campaign director David Mellet says. "We expect groups opposing us to sue," he says, "and use all powers at their disposal to stop us. After we win that legal fight, we’ll start a statewide voter education campaign." It briefly looked like Illinois might get two redistricting-focused ballot initiatives — the same legislators who complained about the Independent Map Amendment passed their own redistricting commission legislation last week. The plan did not escape the state senate, however.

"Let’s make a deal" redistricting

State legislators often invoke the third-grader defense when arguing why they can’t relinquish their sweet redistricting powers — They started it! Why do I have to stop if they get to keep gerrymandering? Obviously, unfair redistricting still exists, even as a few states have tried to extinguish it, which leads some politicians to argue that it isn’t fair if they have to give up their electoral advantages while other states get away with it. Typically when this argument is made, the other state is probably run by the opposing party. Which is why Democratic Maryland state senator Jamie Raskin — who is on his way to winning a House seat — introduced a bill that would force his state and its neighbor to adopt redistricting reform at the same time. "The idea of an interstate compact isn’t new," Li says. "Port Authority and the D.C. Metro, those are both interstate compacts. But doing it for redistricting is new. It’s an interesting concept."

The idea probably won’t go anywhere, at least right away, as it has no cosponsors and Virginia — or any other state — hasn’t expressed much interest. Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, who has offered his support for an independent redistricting commission in the state, "doesn’t think a two-state solution is the realistic way to achieve this plan," his spokesperson told the Washington Post.

So the idea of mutually agreeing to lay down the pencils remains in concept mode for now.