President Barack Obama spent the last chunk of his 2016 State of the Union Address talking about how to “fix our politics.” His first solution? Stop gerrymandering, the shaping of congressional districts to guarantee electoral outcomes. “We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” he said. At least one geographer has heeded Obama’s call to action. Using data from the US Census Bureau, Alasdair Rae, a geographer and urban planner at Sheffield University, built maps of every congressional district—all 435 of them—to show just how screwed up they really are. When Rae maps them individually, removed from the context of their surrounding districts, you can really see the extent of the problem. “There are some shapes that are quite egregious,” Rae says.
The worst offender? “North Carolina was and is often used as the archetype,” Rae says. His map shows the state’s 12th district undulating northwest to southeast like an eight-bit snake. Now, technically gerrymandering is against the law—unless topography gets in the way, districts are supposed to be contiguous regions. But the 12th…well, look at it. Its irregular blocks of land all connect, but only at their corners. Legislators call this “point contiguity,” and when you see it on a map, you can bet something dicey is going on.
Even crazier, though, gerrymandering used to be worse. Before the Supreme Court barred redistricting along racial lines, the shapes on the map were even more tortured. Rae’s maps show this, too. North Carolina’s 12th looked like a string during the 103rd Congress (1993-1995) and a collection of tangrams during the 106th (1999-2001), when it finally morphed into its present-day snake—albeit one that has grown increasingly slender at each redistricting, from the 107th Congress (2001-2003) through the 114th. “The 114th Congress, it looks ridiculous,” Rae says. “But actually, when you compare it to the one of 20 years ago, it looks relatively sane.”