What makes gerrymandering hard? Try it for yourself.

In the last blog post on gerrymandering, I talked a bit (or linked to videos that would do the talking for me) about what gerrymandering is and why it occurs. You may have read through that thinking “If I were in charge of the process, I would do things differently” or “If only they would do the reasonable thing and create districts fairly.” Well, you’re in luck! Thanks to the USC Annenberg Center, you can now play The ReDistricting Game.

The game is split into 5 missions, each with 2 levels of difficulty, Basic and Advanced. The missions themselves also move up (more or less) in levels of complexity and are laid out as follows:

  • Mission 1: Population Equality - The opposition party is in small enough numbers that all districts are yours to change up as you like. Just make sure everyone has roughly the same number of people.
  • Mission 2: Partisan Gerrymander - Your party controls the legislature and is happy to pass your redistricting plan, as long as it makes a current district controlled by an opposition party representative a shoe in for your party in the next election. Just make sure every district has roughly equal population.  
  • Mission 3: Bi-Partisan Gerrymander - Both parties call a truce with redistricting, but want to make sure their seats are secure for the next round of elections. Redraw the borders so that each representative has a safe majority in their district, with everyone having the same number of constituents.
  • Mission 4: Voting Rights Act - A new district is planned and must be a majority (>66%) African-American district. However, the obvious avenue for this takes critical votes away from a current representative. Redraw the map to incorporate this district, make the current representatives happy, and, as always, make sure there’s roughly equal population.
  • Mission 5: Reform - A new reform has passed that makes it so that districting plans are no longer approved by the legislature and are instead approved by an independent commission the courts. Party affiliation cannot be considered, so it becomes a version of the population equality challenge, only you’re trying to appease the independent commission, who wants compact, equal population districts. Enjoy watching the legislature throw a fit without being able to do anything about it.

The two difficulty settings, so far as I can tell, don’t change the challenges themselves, but make it more likely for your changes to get rejected by the courts for things like not being compact enough. Honestly this is probably enough to go from Basic to Advanced, as it’s frustrating enough (in a good way) to spend 20 minutes just trying to meet the mission goals only to be told you need to rejigger things to convince the courts to go along with it too.

This game runs in Flash, and seems to have first come onto the scene in 2010, so it does show its age a bit. In general though, it does a good job of showing how a need like “I don’t want to lose my job” or “we all need to agree on changes” can turn into some really bizarre district maps. And even if you start off with the best intentions, you’ll quickly find yourself gerrymandering with the best of them just to make the plan pass.

This also helps to show how districting of any kind is a complex optimization problem. Let’s see if computers can do a better job with it...