WASHINGTON, D.C. – One of the most contentious battles in politics isn’t just the current battle for the White House, it’s also the upcoming battle over who could ultimately end up in the halls of Congress and state capitols everywhere, in a process called redistricting.
“The basic idea underlying that system is that we should form a constituency with people who live near us,” said Charles Blahous, a senior research strategist at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Virginia.
New district maps are created based on census population numbers every 10 years. Yet, those maps can end up getting distorted to favor one political party over another when gerrymandering comes in to play.
“I think gerrymandering is of concern to most voters because it seems to violate the foundational principle of our representative system, which is that we are divided into districts geographically,” Blahous said.
Geography is something gerrymandering throws out the window. Some of the unusual congressional district maps can end up looking like animals.
There is Maryland’s Democratic 3rd district, which looks like a snake, stretching from Baltimore into counties south. There is also northern Ohio’s Republican 4th district, known as “the duck.”
So, who designed these?
“The Constitution gives the power to state legislatures to draw these maps,” Blahous said.
Since politicians draw the maps, they can be skewed to favor a particular party or incumbent. However, they can also be used to favor people from a particular racial or ethnic group, who have often been under-represented in the halls of power, in order to comply with federal Voting Rights Act rules on representation.
Still, there are now efforts to take the map drawing out of the hands of politicians.
In Virginia, voters will decide this November whether an independent commission should be in charge of the process instead. There are other ideas emerging, too: like using artificial intelligence to make the maps.
“It takes an enormous computer capacity, which was not there 30 years ago, and writing the programming to make that all happen is also not a trivial matter,” said political science professor Bruce Cain, director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.
Prof. Cain said he and a colleague, Prof. Wendy Tam Cho of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believe an algorithm they’ve developed might be the best alternative for making fairer maps.
“What you want to be able to do is take every plan and classify it and say, ‘yeah, this one's better for minorities, this one's better for compactness,’ but is there something that combines both of them?” he said.
It is all part of the ongoing effort to make sure America’s representative democracy remains truly representative of the people.