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Gerrymandering and the Role of Cartographers

Posted by Barbara Fordyce on

Gerrymandering has been a hot topic for a long time, and it's even hotter now that courts are finding fault with flagrantly unfair districts, and requiring lawmakers to develop new, more fair maps.  Plus with the upcoming census, all states are going to be redrawing their districts soon, and that's causing a lot of people to pay attention to the redistricting process.

Redistricting has rarely been neutral; gerrymandering has happened on all ends of the political spectrum, depending on who is in charge during the redistricting process. Partisan gerrymandering is generally permitted as long as there’s no evidence that it discriminates against specific populations. 

Why Parties Gerrymander

The point of gerrymandering isn't to draw yourself a collection of overwhelmingly safe seats. Rather, it's for one party to give its opponents a small number of safe seats, while drawing a larger number of seats that it can expect to win comfortably.

This has the effect of creating fewer competitive districts, which favors extremes in both parties.  The result is legislators who are safely ensconced in their seats, with no motivation to compromise on any issues.


What Would Fair Districts Look Like?

It's easy to look at a gerrymandered district map and and identify ridiculous shapes and boundaries.  What's harder is coming up with a new set of boundaries that can be perceived as fair because every redistricting scheme carries some kind of weight.

Says David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report:

"It’s much more difficult to say what districts should look like, because reformers can disagree on what priorities should govern our political cartography. Should districts be drawn to be more compact? More conducive to competitive elections? More inclusive of underrepresented racial groups? Should they yield a mix of Democratic and Republican representatives that better matches the political makeup of a state? Could they even be drawn at random? These concepts can be difficult to define and often stand in tension with one another.”

Cartographers Can Play an Important Role

Entering this highly politicized environment are cartographers wielding highly detailed population data sets that can pinpoint racial, economic, political factors in any area. In fact, computer cartography has been used extensively to analyze and display post election results.  These maps are very effective in illustrating the disproportionate effects that gerrymandering causes, and they have heightened awareness of the gerrymandering problem.

However, cartographers and planners using GIS are becoming aware of the role they can play in the redistricting process.  And they realize they can play a significant role in the process of shaping the districts, not just analyzing them after the vote is cast.

Joyce Choi Won Li, from NYU's urban planning school, recently wrote an article entitled Let’s Wage Cartographic War:

"As planners and map-makers, we must not be afraid to take on these issues. Our training teaches us the necessary tension between technocratic and political approaches to affecting the urban landscape. We must also understand the unique opportunity we have to intervene in how our country is parceled and re-drawn. There is a cartographic war in elections; we should deploy our planner skillset to prevent further voter suppression and create a more effective democracy."

With the amount of data now available, computer generated mapping can take redistricting to a completely new level. But whether we get districts that are more just, or just more gerrymandered, remains to be seen.


For a super deep dive on all aspects of redistricting and gerrymandering, go to The Gerrymandering Project at

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  • Useful video that helps us understand gerrymandering.

    Barbara on
  • Another update…. some out-of-the-box thinking at City Lab on how to set up districts by mapping commuter routes and correlating that info to identify so-called “communities of interest".

    Barbara on
  • Related to revised map in PA, this interactive map allows users to compare the data from new suggested maps with old map.

    Barbara on

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