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Gerrymandering valentines prove nothing says ‘I love you’ like redistricting

(Courtesy of Blair Thornburgh)

If you like bad puns AND redistricting humor, have I got a treat for you.

Editor and author Blair Thornburgh unleashed a set of gerrymandering-themed valentines Tuesday on Twitter. “Probably my favorite joke trope is 'stupid Valentine's pun' and I've constantly got gerrymandering on the brain so something just clicked,” she explained in an email. The districts Thornburgh used for her project were featured in a book by Syracuse University geographer Mark Monmonier.

Gerrymandering, you may recall, is the process by which lawmakers draw legislative districts to give their party a numeric advantage at the polls.

If you're, say, a Republican majority in a state like Pennsylvania, you could conceivably draw congressional districts in such a way as to pack all the state's Democrats in just a handful of districts, giving yourself easy wins in the remaining ones. That's exactly what happened there following the 2010 census and subsequent district redrawing by the state's Republican legislature.

In 2012, 51 percent of Pennsylvania voters supported Democratic candidates in the election. But Democrats walked away from that election with fewer than one-third of Pennsylvania's House seats, because so much of their support was highly concentrated in just a few districts.

It's worth pointing out that both parties engage in the practice. Maryland's Democrat-drawn districts are among the most gerrymandered in the nation, for instance, and are the subjects of a case working its way through the federal courts.

Adding to the complexity, the Voting Rights Act mandates that minority voters make up a majority of the population in certain congressional districts. This gives black voters in say, North Carolina a voice in Congress. But if you pack an overwhelming majority of a state's black voters in just one or two districts, their power is diluted everywhere else. The result is racial gerrymandering.

North Carolina's racially gerrymandered 12th Congressional District is included in one of Thornburgh's Valentines as it looked in 1990 (nickname: “The Jellyfish Tentacle"). The district does not look much different today.

Illinois' majority-Hispanic 4th Congressional District (“Pair of Earmuffs”) also gets the Valentine's treatment.

Critics of gerrymandering would say that, in many districts, this Valentine message (“I choo-choo-choose my elected officials based on partisan redistricting”) is the opposite of what actually happens: Aggressive gerrymanders allow partisan lawmakers choose their voters, rather than the other way around.

Rounding out Thornburgh's collection is Georgia's 11th Congressional District, as drawn in 1990 to ensure a black majority (Syracuse University's Monmonier dubbed it the “French Poodle Attacking with a Hatchet"). Following redistricting in 2010, Georgia's 11th is now home to Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R).

There are a number of solutions to gerrymandering. You could put redistricting decisions in the hands of an independent commission, as Arizona has done. The Supreme Court upheld Arizona's system in 2015.

Getting more bold, lawmakers could instead opt to let computers draw equal-population districts, without any human oversight at all — a computer programmer in Massachusetts created an algorithm to do this in his spare time.

Some observers don't like the idea of computer-drawn districts because they wouldn't respect the Voting Rights Act's mandate for majority-minority districts. But as Thornburgh's Valentines suggest, the quest for the perfect majority-minority district can often lead ridiculous squiggly gerrymanders.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on this very question in December and is expected to hand down a decision by June.