Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Your chance to Gerrymander a congressional district

One of the prizes of the upcoming US elections is control of statehouses and governor’s mansions. The goal is not just the sheer number of Democrat or Repblican held seats, but the ability to control the redistricting process. Every ten years, in response to the shifts in population documented in the census, states redraw Congressional districts, adding or subtracting seats to ensure proportional representation, and, in the process, shaping seats to make them easier for the party in power to win and hold. Mara Liasson did an excellent story for NPR outlining the importance of redistricting and the resources being put towards races to win statehouse seats – basically, one of the prizes at stake in the 2010 elections is the ability to gerrymander.


NY-28, featured in Michael Cooper’s NYTimes piece

Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review includes a great piece by Michael Cooper on gerrymandering Congressional districts, including five absurd districts created to stack elections, like the district above that spans more than 100 miles in upstate New York, packing as many Democrats as possible into one area to create Republican seats. The Cooper piece makes clear that redistricting is a dark art, involving detailed demographic data and algorithms capable of calculating partisan gains through “packing” and “splitting”.


Screenshot from The Redistricting Game

Ever wanted to practice those dark arts? An excellent simulation from USC’s Annenberg Center and USC’s Game Innovation Lab gives you the opportunity. The Redistricting Game requires you to draw five sets voting districts, optimized for different outcomes. (The game uses pop-up windows, and you may need to make an exception for your pop-up blocker to play it.) The first scenario simply requires you to create proportional districts, with roughly equivalent numbers of voters in each. The second and third get more cynical – which is to say, more realistic. In one, you turn a state that has two Democratic and two Republican districts into one that’s three and one. In the other, you don’t switch control of any seats around – you simply redistrict to ensure safe seats for all elected officials.

The fourth scenario brings in the Voting Rights Acts and requires a new 65% African-American district to be added to the map. It’s extremely difficult to draw this district without damaging your two Democratic incumbents, who’ll vote against your plan. In the fifth scenario, Representative John Tanner’s plan for redistricting has been adopted, and you’ve got to create districts without considering partisan issues. Play this scenario on the basic level, and all you need to do is create compact, contiguous districts with the right number of people in them. This seemed like a cop-out to me – all we need to do is pass this legislation and good things will result, says the game as advocate.

Fortunately, the game’s designers are far more cynical than that. On the advanced level – closer to actual political reality – that compact, contiguous plan will be voted down by all your “bipartisan” panel members on partisan lines. You then need to figure out how to ensure partisan victory for one side, while having no information on the partisanship of the voters you’re dividing. Good fun. While the game was created in 2007, it couldn’t be much more timely, and I hope journalists will turn to it as a resource to help explain what actually goes on in redistricting in the coming year.

I’m often suspicious of games for change, socially responsible games, “serious games” –
I think a lot of foundations support the creation of games without much thought for whether they ultimately reach their intended audience, and sometimes make funding decisions based on the idea that funding games will be perceived as forward-looking, creative and edgy. I know of a number of games that had unimpeachable motives behind their creation, but failed to find an audience, either because the gameplay was mediocre or the subject in question wasn’t well explained via a game.

Redistricting seems to fit the game model better than many other problems – in a very real way, the people who draw constituencies are playing a computer game, so the process is easier to render on the screen than, say, the process of door-to-door campaigning. Playing for half an hour this morning, I felt like I learned something about the intersection of forces that was hard to get from Cooper’s piece.

It’s possible that Cooper’s article illustrates a problem I’m starting to see in a lot of advocacy – advocacy from extreme examples. A trend in recent years in both conservative and progressive advocacy has been realizing the power of narrative. Telling a compelling human story of someone affected by a particular policy or problem can be far more affecting that marshalling statistics and analysis. In a climate where policy decisions seem to be less “reality based” than in (some idealized?) past times, offering a compelling narrative looks to be an essential aspect of advocacy.

To offer a compelling narrative, it helps to show an extreme miscarriage of justice – for example, the arrest of 15% of the African American population of Tulia, Texas on fraudulent drug charges by a corrupt police sting operation. (Indeed, the story is so compelling that it’s been the subject of two documentaries, and a forthcoming film starring Halle Berry…) The Tulia story sticks in the mind of anyone who’s heard it… but so do the extreme circumstances: the shocking credulity of police in accepting the accounts of a paid informant, the scale of the arrests, the aggresiveness of the prosecution, the large number of people affected. Progressive advocates want to use the story of Tulia to explain that there are systemic weaknesses in the criminal justice system that lead African Americans to be disproportionately arrested, especially for drug crimes.

We tell the Tulia story and back it with statistics that make the case that racial disparity in policing isn’t as unusual as we might think – policies like stop and frisk mean that many more African American and Latino men have contact with police than white men, and more opportunity to be arrested for posession of small posessions of drugs. But the extreme nature of the Tulia situation can distract us from more ordinary injustice – the fact that a black man in certain precincts of New York City had a 30-36% chance of being stopped and questioned by police during 2006. I worry that there’s a danger we get caught up with the extraordinary narrative and end up forgetting the more ordinary, commonplace facts.

Similarly, I’m not sure Cooper’s five gerrymandered districts help me understand how ordinary and everyday the shaping of election districts to create partisan outcomes actually is. (I wrote this, and was about to write, “After all, my Congressional district makes pretty good sense, and wasn’t created to be a safe seat as there’s nothing safer than being a western MA democrat.” And then I looked at my district, which looks roughly as confusing and non-compact as any of the districts I was trying to create in USC’s game.) If these districts are extremes, do they encourage us to look at our districts and think about whether they’re similarly strangely structured, or do they let us off the hook because we’re not living anywhere as absurd as New York’s 28th district? USC’s game left me with the impression that none of these districts are objectively “fair” – they’re all the product of an interplay of political forces with extremely high consequences for the affected politicians and the citizens they represent. Whether that’s a fair impression or the result of a well-constructed advocacy game… perhaps that’s the subject for another blog post.

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  1. Campaign Season « Anderson Issues - [...] Your chance to Gerrymander a congressional district (ethanzuckerman.com) [...]
  2. PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: November 11, 2010 - [...] from some weeks back: Ethan Zuckerman writes about the “gerrymander your own district” game, a fascinating attempt to engage …

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