December 8, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘How Maps Reshape American Politics’

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Featured Article: “How Maps Reshape American Politics” by Nick Corasaniti, Reid J. Epstein, Taylor Johnston, Rebecca Lieberman and Eden Weingart

Every 10 years in the United States, after the census, the boundaries of voting districts are redrawn to reflect the changes in population. This process is called “redistricting” and it is happening this year. While it may seem straightforward in theory, in reality it is intensely political, and can alter the fairness of elections before any votes are cast.

In this lesson, you will use interactive graphics to learn about redistricting and how it can be manipulated through a practice called “gerrymandering” to preserve and expand political power. As you read, we invite you to consider the question: Just how fair is our current system?

You learned above that redistricting is the process of redrawing the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. But why do we do it? Here is how The Times explains it:

Over time, districts gain or lose population. That gives a voter in a district with a bigger population less of a say than a voter in a sparsely populated district. New maps are drawn to keep the population in each congressional district roughly even.

With that information in mind, open the featured article and, before scrolling any further, watch the animation at the top showing how Democrats redrew the 17th Congressional District in Illinois.

Then, scroll down and read the explanation of why the district is shaped that way. The article says it is intended “to pack in as many Democrats as possible, by including liberal cities and bypassing conservative rural areas.”

  • What do you think about this practice? Does it seem fair or just to you? Why or why not?

  • What guesses do you have about how districts drawn like this one might affect the outcome of elections?

Read the answers to the first nine questions in the featured article. Then answer the questions below:

1. Why are district maps important? Why should we care about them this year?

2. Why are the boundaries of districts redrawn every 10 years?

3. What is reapportionment? How is it determined by the census?

4. What factors must mapmakers consider when drawing district maps? Why is the Voting Rights Act important in redistricting?

5. Some states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel, but most have state lawmakers draw the new maps for Congress. How can this affect the fairness of elections?

6. What is gerrymandering? Why might lawmakers be motivated to draw maps that look like the one you saw in the warm-up activity, instead of something simpler?

7. The article states that the goal of these maps is “to ensure that a state’s congressional districts all have roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation in the House of Representatives.” To what extent does our current redistricting system live up to that goal?

Option 1: Read the rest of the article using a jigsaw strategy.

Below, we’ve divided the rest of the article into four sections. You will become in expert in one of the topics and then share what you learn about it with your classmates. Teachers may decide to assign a student or small group to each topic, or allow students to choose.

Students, read your section and take notes on the key points your classmates need to know to understand your topic. You might use the questions below to help guide your reading:

Section 1 | Questions 10-14: Cracking and Packing

Section 2 | Questions 15-18: The Effect on the Political Process

Section 3 | Questions 19-22: The History of Gerrymandering and What It Looks Like Today

Section 4 | Questions 23-25: How the Process Can Change

After you’ve finished reading your section, form teaching groups with at least one expert in each of the other topics and share what you’ve learned with one another.

Finally, discuss the following questions as a group, citing evidence from the article to support your responses:

  • Do you think the way redistricting works is fair or just?

  • If you think redistricting needs to change, why? How should it be done differently?

  • If you don’t think the process needs to change, why not?

Option 2: Try these activities from Retro Report.

For more lesson plans and student activities on redistricting and gerrymandering, check out the newest resources from our friends at Retro Report.

You can watch an 11-minute video to see how these processes affect democracy. Learn about reapportionment and redistricting by using digital tools to draw your own district boundaries. Or, understand how gerrymandering tilts political power by analyzing state congressional maps and evaluating alternative ways to draw districts.

Teachers can also join Retro Report for a live webinar, “Teaching About Redistricting & Gerrymandering,” on Nov. 10.


Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here.

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