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Gerrymandering Isn't A Game - But Sometimes It Is

David Martin Davies | Texas Public Radio
John LaFair and his game "Mapmaker."

Texas begins redistricting in two years. The process will slice up Texas into political districts. When the districts are redrawn to benefit a particular party, it's called gerrymandering.  Some say it's time to finally end this particular political game.

At a Starbucks in West Austin high school senior Josh LaFair set up a board game that he and his siblings invented.

"There's a lot of scheming. There's a lot of strategizing, and there's a lot of backstabbing."

The game is called "Mapmaker."

"Each player has a political party, and players go around separating voters into districts and whoever has the most districts at the end of the game wins."

It resembled any other high-end board game. But this one had little tokens for the major political parties. There was a red elephant, a blue donkey, a green leaf and a yellow porcupine – that’s the symbol for the Libertarians.

“They are really, really cute.”

Credit David Martin Davies | Texas Public Radio

LaFair set the board on the table and explained that in the game and in real life gerrymandering allows politicians to pick their voters and keeps voters from picking their true representatives. 

LaFair hoped his game educates the public about what is going on and how to fix it. "Nobody's really talking about gerrymandering," he said. "They're not talking about how our politicians are actually influencing these elections by how they're drawing these lines. Which is why we wanted to create this game."

LaFair said the idea for the board game came from looking at what was happening to Austin.

"So my brother, sister and I grew up in a gerrymandered district in Austin, Texas -- District 10 -- and we'd wanted to invent the board game because we wanted to start conversations around the country about an issue that isn't discussed enough."

One way to determine if Texas is truly gerrymandered is to compare the total vote share that Republican and Democratic candidates for the U.S. Congress received in the 2018 midterm election.

Republicans received 53 percent of those votes. Democrats got 47 percent.

If the 36 seats in the Texas congressional delegation were divided with that proportion then there would be 19 Republican members of congress from Texas and 17 Democrats.

Instead what Texas has is 23 Republican congressmen and 13 Democrats.

The Republicans appear to get four additional seats because of the way the maps are drawn. And to see how they do that look no further than Austin.

Credit David Martin Davies | Texas Public Radio

“If you look at the city of Austin and Travis County as a whole, we have six congressional reps. There is not a single district that has more than 25% of the Austin population. So six different congressional representatives, five of whom are Republican, one Democrat representing the city of Austin and Travis County.”

That’s State Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat. She is working to end gerrymandering in Texas with the establishment of an independent redistricting commission. She says it’s not just Republicans who gerrymander. When the Democrats had control in the state they did it too.

Howard added that “whichever party's been in power basically has used to this, uh, situation to draw lines that protected incumbents that ensure that a certain people can be elected that pack districts with a part, the party in power.”

But given the demographic shifts and political trends in Texas some say there are signs that the Republicans could lose control of the legislature.

“Texas is becoming more urban, there are more minorities, there are fewer Christians. Texas is likely to swing Democrat within 10 years.”

At a recent hearing of the Texas House of Representatives redistricting committee Michael Nahas with Fair Maps Texas warned Republicans that they need to reform redistricting or prepare to be the other end of the gerrymandering boot.

“I would ask the Republican majority here – do you want extremist liberals in safe seats making laws for your children and grandchildren? – or do you want centralists making the laws and voting for them and having a large effect on their lives?”

This question is asking Republicans to give up the power they have now in order to curb the power that might be used against them later.

Michael Li, an expert on redistricting at the Brennan Center for Justice, said this is a pivotal time for Texas.

“It’s really a great time for people to be statesmen.”

Li said because of where the political pendulum is in its swing, this is a rare time when both political parties could be motivated to actually pass meaningful redistricting reform.

“Republicans had better provide themselves with some insurance and at the same time Democrats don’t know when that’s going to arrive so they have that incentive to continue to want to be fair.”

So will this legislature be able to move forward on redistricting reform? Don’t bet on it.

Howard’s bills and similar ones were left pending. Essentially they are left in legislative limbo. Stuck there until there’s another committee meeting to vote them out. Howard said it’s her impression that the House Redistricting Committee will not meet again this legislative session. So unless something changes, the issue is dead.

That's why Josh LaFair, the inventor of the Mapmaker board game, said it’s going to take the people in Texas to rise up and demand redistricting reform.

“You’d have less extreme politics. You’d have more people collaborating with each other. You’d have more people listening to their voters. Which is exactly what is supposed to happen. You'll have the voters choosing their politicians.”

And you’ll no longer have politicians picking their voters.

David Martin Davies can be reached at DMDavies@TPR.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi