My Manhattan neighborhood has grown by leaps and bounds in the dozen years I've lived here. When I first moved in, my kids and I walked through a field of wildflowers when I took them to their elementary school, which was at the time the only full kindergarten-to-fifth grade program in the area. Now, the kids go to the same field to visit a friend, who does not live in a tent but in Manhattan's first green apartment building. It's just a few doors down from a new elementary and middle school.
My neighborhood's population increase is just a microcosm of what happens all over the country: the population of Nevada may grow while North Dakota's shrinks, and my Battery Park City neighborhood may gain new residents while another neighborhood empties out. These shifts are why congressional districts are re-evaluated every ten years with each new federal census: to insure the equitable representation that is a cornerstone of our system of government.
The House of Representatives numbers a constant 435 members, based on a formula that allots districts to each state based on its' share of the country's entire population. A population increase that requires more representation in one state's district therefore requires a decrease in representation somewhere else. This is likely to make some people mad.
These facts of American enfranchisement are the basic concepts behind "The Redistricting Game," a free online game that's designed to educate citizens on the process of determining and redrawing congressional districts.
"The Redistricting Game" was created at the University of Southern California's Game Innovation Lab (http://interactive.usc.edu/) for USC's Annenberg School of Communication (http://www.annenberg.edu/). It's pretty easy at the start: you decide if you want to play as a Democrat or a Republican, and then redistrict the fictitious state of Jefferson to ensure that each congressional district has (roughly) the same number of citizens. Fortunately for you, it's a one-party state, which makes it easier to keep both congresscritters and constituents happy. But create erratic borders, say, or a redistricting plan that places a representative's home outside of her district, and the Representatives will get cranky, and you'll get a word balloon telling you just how you screwed up. And even if you come up with a plan they everybody can live with, it still needs to win approval from the legislature, the governor and the courts.
In addition to the basic level, "The Redistricting Game" has four additional levels that engage the player in manipulations of voter rights taken straight from the history books, each with a different mission and two levels of difficulty. Two levels involve gerrymandering, an American political tradition in which a district's boundaries are redrawn to create or retain a voter base that will keep certain individuals or a particular party in power. (The term dates to 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed into law a map that included a very blatantly manipulated district; this vaguely salamander-shaped new creature was dubbed a "gerrymander.") One gerrymander level is partisan and the other bipartisan; in each you need to redraw districts to gain a particular advantage for the party of your choice, and then cope with the ensuing complications.
The fourth mission involves the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965, which, among other things, suspended the use of literacy tests and poll taxes to qualify voters on the grounds that they effectively barred poor and minority citizens from the polls. The fifth mission is focused on Tanner's Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, which proposes independent redistricting commissions in order to eliminate partisan bickering.
The game also incorporates additional information about basic and advanced redistricting concepts, links, and a Call to Action pull-down menu with options to "Tell a Friend" and "Tell Congress."
If this sounds like a dull high school civics lesson, trust me: it's not, or the game wouldn't be an effective tool for education and political activism. Improbably, "The Redistricting Game" succeeds in making the subject of redistricting both interesting and approachable. You can spend hours playing it (which I did) without managing a single successful gerrymander or master voter reform, and still have fun doing it.
And the game's lessons are not abstract; over 40 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, voter disenfranchisement in America is still a problem. The U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear a case on whether a proposed Indiana voter identification law would unfairly keep poor and minority voters away from the polls. After playing The Redistricting Game, you may have an answer before the nine most esteemed justices in this country have even heard the case.
I don't know what kind of software or maps are involved in real-world redistricting. But if they're half as much fun to use as "The Redistricting Game" I fear we'll never see an end to gerrymandering, because the politicos will be enjoying themselves too much to stop.
The Redistricting Game is a really great visualization of the process, and even my wife (who is not a casual-style computer gamer) found it interesting. So I think it has a chance to really bring some information about this incredibly important, but often unappreciated, process into the open...where it definitely needs to be.
As for myself, I played for FAR too long! I've read many articles in magazines from Utne to Reason about gerrymandering software, but playing this game really gave me a much better idea of what kind of challenges we have before us in making these decisions in a "fair" way.