The way we draw our political districts has a huge effect on U.S. politics, but the process is also greatly misunderstood. Gerrymandering has become a scapegoat for what’s wrong with the polarized American political system, blamed for marginalizing groups and rigging elections, but there’s no simple, one-size-fits-all design solution for drawing fair districts.

Assuming one wants to live in a representative democracy, the next question becomes: how are we best represented? We need to divide ourselves into groups, but on what basis? How should the lines be drawn and who should decide the criteria for drafting them? When people talk about “gerrymandering,” they are often referring to the partisan variety (i.e. stacking the deck against an opposing political party), but redrawing lines can also be done to protect incumbents, discriminate against minority groups or achieve other goals.

In the Gerrymandering Project, FiveThirtyEight did a deep dive into the effects of gerrymandering, exploring the complexities and trade-offs of reform. It includes a six-part audio documentary series that examines how four states — Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arizona and California — are dealing with very different districting challenges.

Each state’s story explores a key complaint about the redistricting process. In Wisconsin, the focus is on partisan gerrymandering — one party getting more representation than its vote share would suggest. In North Carolina, there is an ongoing gerrymandering debate over how best to represent racial minorities through the redistricting process. In Arizona, the state has faced challenges in trying to create competitive elections. And in California, we hear about what happens when voters try to remove politics from the redistricting process altogether.

The truth is there is no perfect approach to redistricting. The process involves trade-offs that are bound to leave some people dissatisfied. But there are ways to improve how it’s done — ideas include: proportional representation, increasing the size of Congress, leaving districting to algorithms or creating independent commissions.

Ultimately, any system we implement will have its challenges. That doesn’t mean reform is futile, but it does mean we should be having a deeper conversation about goals beyond “ending gerrymandering.” Overly simplistic answers aren’t going to cut it when the very structure of our representative democracy is at stake.

Host Roman Mars spoke with Galen Druke of FiveThirtyEight. Listen to full episodes, join the discussion and follow The Gerrymandering Project here. Chadwick Matlin is the editor for the project; Kate Bakhtiyarova and Alice Wilder contributed to production. Additional production for this 99% Invisible version by Emmett FitzGerald.

  1. Dan Jacobs

    The laws that cover redistricting are something I haven’t dove into, but either the Opening Arguments or Serious Inquiries Only podcast did some explaining. I was shocked to hear the one of the rules is that any redistricting must favor the incumbent.

    I know. I felt just like that too when I heard it.

  2. Josh

    I am disappointed by this podcast. I began listening over almost two years ago and was delighted to learn about the inventor of plastic, the evolution of the ranch home, McMansions, and even Ms. Manhattan. These were great episodes and I learned much from them. Now, for the past year, every episode is another political assault. I get it. You all dislike Republicans. Very much. If I want more politics I’ll go read the newsfeed on my phone. Can we please go back to the fun and quirky design episodes that make me delighted to look around my city for things I never thought to notice before?

    1. Josh

      Josh, I can’t remember every episode of this show recently and analyze it for bias. However, this episode, other than some short editorial comments that could be perceived to have bias, was mainly about reporting on the subject. A subject that many liberals know so little about and often assume will solve their problems, when in reality is a complex issue with trade-offs….

      Anyway, I actually came on here to comment on another thing.
      I really wish the hosts had made a bigger deal of the techno-utopian point of view that algorithms can save all problems. They missed an opportunity to make it clear that computers aren’t magic, they are tools which are just as flawed as the writers who make them. In an issue that is so political and deals with trade-offs like gerrymandering this should be even more clear. Hell the reason why Republicans have been able to be so efficient with their district lines is because they used algorithms for their purposes and not the public’s.

    2. Damon

      I agree. Politics are 100% in-your-face visible right now and exactly what I don’t want to hear more about in my favorite podcast.

    3. RANDAL

      I AGREE!!!! Also, it is pronounced with a hard “G”: named after Governor Elbridge Gerry (pronounced /ˈɡɛri/; 1744–1814)

  3. Doug

    I wish there was some discussion in there about proportional representation or different voting methods that could negate gerrymandering. But I guess that gets away from the point of the map design.

  4. Johannes

    i agree doug, here in germany we have our own problems with our voting system but at least it don’t have so much gerrymandering.

  5. Nils Breunese

    “We need to divide ourselves into groups (…)”

    Oh yeah, why? Just add up all the votes in the nation. That’s fair and that’s how we do it in The Netherlands and that works just fine.

  6. Eric Topp

    The first-past-the-post voting system in the USA (and many other representative democracies) contains a flaw: each representative has one vote in the assembly (House of Representatives, State Legislature, etc) that they are elected to regardless of the number of people who voted for them. Gerrymanders defeat the democratic principle of “one vote, one value” by drawing electoral boundaries such that voters in some electorates have more power than voters in other electorates. One solution would be for representatives to have the number of votes in the assembly equal to the number of people who voted for them.

    1. Jakob

      Indeed. There is another more fundamental design problem here – what kind of voting system is best? It is clear to me that a Scandinavian proportional system over very large bodies of voters is much more fair in terms of making each vote count. Does not matter where you live or how voting precincts are drawn. All that matters is the total number of votes for each party. It would also make life a lot easier to have for more parties, offering a more pluralistic political environment.

      In the US, that could at least be applied within each state for congressional elections with ease. Even simpler for the presidential election.

      This majority vote in fixed precincts is a really interesting and bad design point. Would be good to dig into why it happened in the first place – I think it comes from the UK?

  7. Sam Swordsout

    I had to stop listening right away when I realized that in a podcast about a subject in which there are decades worth of examples of hundreds, possibly thousands, of democrat abuses, they choose the one example of republicans doing it. The bias is so loud it’s deafening.

    1. 99pi

      If you listen on: there are actually four different examples of different types in different states.

  8. Trevor M

    In Australia the boundary drawing has been removed from the politicians for a long time. Thank God.

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