Monday, October 24, 2011

Redistricting: Making the Maps That Make Your Vote Matter Less

The New York Times reported on Saturday that efforts currently underway to draw new boundaries for Congressional districts across the country, a process called Redistricting that takes place in America after each Decennial Census, the most recent of which occurred, of course, in 2010.

Above, an interactive map of the current population of Colorado from the Census Bureau.

The Times points out that 28 states -- including Colorado -- have already had or are in the process having their new district maps challenged in court due to a process called gerrymandering.  Gerrymandering is a process named for Elbridge Gerry, former Governor of Massachusetts, whose "Democratic-Republican partisans," according to the blog Big Think... 
...had stitched together the district in such a way as to assure the electoral victory of their candidate and therefore the defeat of the candidate for the other main party, the Federalists. The year was 1812, and the first of many recorded uses of the term occurred that spring.
From Big Think, an 1812 Editorial cartoon by famed American artist Gilbert Stuart that
gave birth to the term "Gerrymander."
Essentially, gerrymandering is the process by which the party currently holding a majority at the time of redistricting oversees and approves the process of creating new district maps.  The downside is that this is done in a manner that makes it highly unlikely, if not statistically impossible, that the party in party will lose an upcoming election.  In some cases, the dominant party make gain seats through redistricting.
To understand the effects redistricting can have on future elections, it helps to note how congressional seats are initially assigned -- or apportioned, to use the official term. The U.S. Census Bureau has, to that end, released a video summarizing the process of apportionment.

Once seats are apportioned, the creation of districts are up to the state.  The State of Colorado has a detailed Redistricting Web site to make the process as transparent an open as possible.  This site includes definitions of terms, access to the data files used to draw the maps, as well as GIS files and even Google Earth friendly KMZ files to view existing and proposed changes to congressional boundaries.

If after viewing these files a person doesn't quite understand how the mix of population and political representation can affect the creation of congressional voting districts, then they do have the opportunity to try their hand at redistricting via The Redistricting Game.

As its title implies, The Redistricting Game allows players to work to balance congressional districts in favor of their party.  It also serves, according to its creators at the University of Southern California, "to educate, engage, and empower citizens around the issue of political redistricting."
By exploring how the system works, as well as how open it is to abuse, The Redistricting Game allows players to experience the realities of one of the most important (yet least understood) aspects of our political system. The game provides a basic introduction to the redistricting system, allows players to explore the ways in which abuses can undermine the system, and provides info about reform initiatives - including a playable version of the Tanner Reform bill to demonstrate the ways that the system might be made more consistent with tenets of good governance. Beyond playing the game, the web site for The Redistricting Game provides a wealth of information about redistricting in every state as well as providing hands-on opportunities for civic engagement and political action.

Players can try their hand at congressional redistricting via The Redistricting Game.
Were you able to draw up boundaries that approtions voters fairly into districts?  Did the game affect your perceptions of bias and gerrymandering for future elections?  Let us know your thoughts on the process as a whole in the comments below.

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