Picture a quiet field.
In this field, we find a cow sitting smack in the middle of a rural township, right in the center of a county about 20 miles from a big city.

Our cow could be in Wisconsin. Or Illinois. Or Pennsylvania. Or Maryland.

Now, imagine that our cow settles down just so in this pasture.

As it blithely chews its cud, in just the right spot, our cow’s brisket sits in one United States congressional district, its prime rib in another, and its sirloin in a third.

This politically divided pasture is just one sign of how, across these United States, wacky electoral district lines zig, zag, loop, and narrow with no apparent rhyme or reason.

These lines don’t respect municipal or county boundaries, natural boundaries like rivers, or logical communities of interest.
As weird as these maps seem, they are in fact governed by a rigorous logic – the logic of partisan advantage and incumbent self-interest.

In so doing, they turn our democracy upside down. They, even more than than the Electoral College, are the Big Fail of our system for choosing leaders, the bug in the operating system of the Republic.

Gerrymandering creates a situation where politicians get to pick their voters, rather than the other way around.
How did our representative democracy get so messed up?

Note that gerrymandering has been around, in some form, as long as the United States of America. The term derives from Elbridge Gerry, a founding father who helped draft the Bill of Rights and was vice president under James Madison, as well as a governor of Massachusetts.

While governor, Gerry took part in some funky map making that led a political cartoonist of the time to label one of the districts that resulted a “gerrymander” – as in “Gerry + salamander.”

So yes, as some reform skeptics assert, drawing an election map is an inherently political exercise – and throughout our history politicians have done it in ways that served their own interests.

Still, many experts say gerrymandering has gotten much more extreme and damaging in the last 20 years. Why?

Computers and Big Data.

To explain why that is so, let’s first circle back to the basics.
Meanwhile, the incumbents made safe by “packed” districts often offer quiet thanks by declining to oppose the gerrymander. They go along with maps that help their job security while essentially rendering meaningless the votes of their own party’s faithful around the rest of the state. Don’t hold your breath waiting for them to admit this or express regret.

All these safe seats, in both federal and state legislatures, create a huge cohort of legislators who have scant accountability to voters. For example, In Pennsylvania, often cited as one of 2011’s worst gerrymanders, nearly half of the State House’s 203 members faced NO opponent in the fall 2016 election.

Is it any surprise then that, along with hyper-partisanship and gridlock, corruption is epidemic in state capitols?

What can be done?
Most reformers want to take some or all of the mapping power away from politicians and put the pen in ordinary people’s hands. (The U.S. Constitution doesn’t say a word on how states should redistrict, only that it’s their responsibility.)

In only two states are politicians completely divorced from drawing the lines.

Remember Iowa? That “divided” cow couldn’t be in Iowa because the Hawkeye State has what is universally hailed as the nation’s most rigorous, respected nonpartisan mapping process.

While 21 states have some form of commission with input into either congressional or state districts, the members are usually either elected officials or their appointees. (See: fox/henhouse.)

Of those 21, only six give final say over congressional districts to an appointed commission.

California, as it often does, has led the way, creating the only fully empowered citizens panel where politicians don’t pick the appointees.

As the national debate grows ever more contentious and the next census and round of redistricting comes into view, advocates in multiple states, from Colorado to Missouri to Michigan, are pushing for major redistricting reform.