There are two very important things to know about Josh Lafair and his older siblings, Becca and Louis: They love board games, and they hate gerrymandering.
“We grew up in a gerrymandered district in Austin, Texas and we wanted to start conversations around the country about an issue that isn't just really isn't discussed enough,” Lafair, 18, told MTV News. So, Mapmaker: The Gerrymandering Game, was born.
Gerrymandering is a practice used by both political parties to shape a district so that the voters that make up that district will be more likely to vote in line with their party. Critics say it’s a legalized form of voter suppression, not least of all because the people doing the gerrymandering tend to lump voters of any one demographic together to concentrate their vote. While Democrats and Republicans both take advantage of gerrymandering, Republicans might have more overtly gamed the system in recent years: According to an analysis by Christopher Ingraham, a data reporter for the Washington Post, in 2012, gerrymandering may have contributed to an under-representation of Democratic congresspeople compared to the popular vote, by about 18 seats nationwide.
Congressional districts are drawn every 10 years, and if you’ve ever wondered why your district doesn’t follow the logical rules of geometry, it’s likely gerrymandering came into play. For instance, there are six funky-looking congressional districts that make up Austin, Texas: Only one of those districts is represented by a Democrat, despite the entire city being reliably liberal. Lafair grew up in district 10, which includes a small sliver of Austin, a huge area of countryside, and narrows out in the suburbs of Houston. And that surrounding countryside is largely conservative, a stark contrast from the cities it touches.
“Gerrymandering is extraordinarily important because it kind of dilutes the deepest roots of our own politics,” Lafair said. “One vote, one person. Because of gerrymandering, politicians are completely distorting that idea by growing district that helps themselves in their party. And we wanted to create this board game across America. Gerrymandering really isn't discussed enough.”
To spark that conversation, the Lafairs began working on Mapmaker in 2017. In the game, one to four players each act as a politician with a party affiliation: Red, blue, yellow, or green. Players start with the same amount of total voters, and their color-coded chips — which represent voters — are spread out randomly across the board. They take turns creating districts, with the goal of capturing the highest number of voters.
It’s basically a play on one of the rallying cries of anti-gerrymandering activists, who believe that, under the current system, politicians get to choose their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians. One of the staunchest activists against gerrymandering is former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has made fighting gerrymandering across the country one of his chief causes and, well, loves the Mapmaker game.
To ensure the game’s accuracy, the Lafairs worked with Jonathan Mattingly, chair of the mathematics department at Duke University who has investigated gerrymandering and challenged district maps in North Carolina and Wisconsin.
“They clearly thought a lot about it, and they clearly had been touched by it,” Mattingly told NBC News about the project in 2018. “Leaving their partisan biases behind and just getting into the game and playing it, you may realize how it's a very nonpartisan topic and how it really affects the integrity of our democracy."
It’s also a nationwide issue; the majority of states are home to at least one overwhelmingly gerrymandered district. Yet in a 5-4 decision on Thursday, June 27, the Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts can’t be limited by federal courts. Despite the court's decision, which would basically allow partisan gerrymandering to continue, activists and politicians like Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum are still fighting to stop it, and other forms of voter suppression, at the source.
“SCOTUS abdicated a fundamental obligation: to protect citizens and our democratic selection of leaders,” Abrams tweeted after the Supreme Court ruling was announced. “By allowing partisan gerrymandering without judicial review, they’ve told voters their voices don’t matter and their choices will be made without the consent of the governed.”
“Now more than ever, it's up to all of us, state by state, to help form independent commissions through ballot initiatives and to elect state legislators in 2020 who will draw fair maps,” Lafair told MTV News.
And he, Becca, and Louis have a plan to make themselves heard. When they launched the game in 2018, they celebrated by shipping it to both the Supreme Court and politicians across the U.S., with a note that said: “Gerrymandering is not a game... except when it is.”