One district looks like a “broken-winged pterodactyl,” as a federal judge put it. Another is commonly called the “snake by the lake.” After the 2010 census, state legislators carved up states into these sometimes bizarrely shaped slivers, a process known as gerrymandering, in order to entrench their electoral power. The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that these districts must contain roughly equal populations. But in 2019, it ruled that federal courts have no power to stop legislators from drawing districts along partisan lines and thus diluting votes for their opponents.
Next year, state lawmakers will redraw the maps again based on the 2020 census, a process mandated by the Constitution. In anticipation of this new redistricting cycle, Slate is revamping our gerrymander puzzle game from 2013 as part of our Who Counts? initiative. We’ll be releasing new puzzles over the upcoming weeks, highlighting the worst and weirdest gerrymanders in the country. Find out how quickly you can put these states back together and learn everything that’s at stake in the next round of redistricting.
The Wisconsin election on April 7 was just the latest battle in a yearslong war between state Republican and Democrat officials. Even when Wisconsin Republicans receive fewer votes than Democrats, they’ve maintained their grasp on most levers of state government through gerrymandering.
Wisconsin was the test tube baby of project REDMAP, a lavishly funded GOP initiative to win state legislatures in 2010 and then gerrymander Democrats into oblivion. Republican legislators—relying on the work of operatives like Thomas Hofeller—engaged in a process called “packing and cracking,” cramming Democrats into blue districts, then distributing the rest throughout red districts. As a result, in 2012, Republicans won less than half the state’s votes for Congress but claimed five out of eight congressional seats. They still have a lock on all five seats, as only one district—the 7th, which leans Democratic—is actually competitive.
The redistricting process in 2021 will look very different. There’s little doubt Republicans will hold onto the Legislature, which they also gerrymandered. But in 2018, Wisconsinites elected a Democratic governor, Tony Evers. In March, Evers created an independent redistricting commission to draw the next round of maps. The Legislature will likely ignore the commission’s recommendations and draw up its own partisan plans—but Evers can veto them. Expect extensive wrangling, and likely litigation, over the future of the state’s district lines.
Republicans aren’t the only ones who know how to gerrymander. Democrats controlled Maryland’s redistricting process in 2011, and their chief goal was to flip the 6th Congressional District in the rural western part of the state, which Republicans had held for almost two decades. To do so, mapmakers shuffled Republicans voters out of the district and moved Democratic voters in. They combined the liberal suburbs of D.C. with the conservative Maryland panhandle, diluting Republican votes. The state’s 3rd Congressional District is another sprawling monstrosity that combines part of very liberal Baltimore, moderately liberal Annapolis, and conservative rural regions, baking in a Democratic advantage. There is just one Republican in the state’s congressional delegation, and analysts have found that Democrats can probably gerrymander him out of his seat in this next round of redistricting.
What does a fair map look like? Take a look at West Virginia, which provides a good example of a reasonable but imperfect congressional redistricting plan. Although it favors Republicans today, it was drawn by Democrats and reflects the state’s current political lean. It contains minor population variations, which the Supreme Court approved, and three districts that sprawl from the Ohio state line all the way to West Virginia’s eastern border. Legislators sought to avoid splitting counties, which partly accounts for the districts’ spiky contours. Although states can also strive to create compact and contiguous districts, it’s important to remember that aesthetically pleasing districts are not always fairer districts. County lines and natural borders like rivers or mountain ranges sometimes create borders that look like classic gerrymanders even when they aren’t.