Association of American Geographers
About AAG Membership Annual Meeting Projects & Programs Education Publications Calendar Of Events Jobs & Careers

Four Things a Geographer Can Do

to make an impact on gerrymandering and redistricting

Once an obscure bureaucratic process, gerrymandering has recently been shoved to the forefront of American political consciousness. We’ve come to recognize that based on how districts are drawn, not everyone ends up with equitable access and representation in Congress and state legislatures. But awareness of the problem only gets us so far. The pervasiveness of gerrymandered districts can be traced down to the leadership and laws of each individual state. You may be thinking, “With a problem so complex, what power do I have to make a difference?” As a geographer, you have much more power than you think. When it comes to redistricting, geospatial understanding is critical. It’s a perspective that redistricting officials sorely need, but often lack. You do not have to be a GIS expert to contribute that powerful perspective. You are a geographer and you deserve to be at the table.

Whether you have a few minutes or a few hours, this guide will get you started to transform your interest into action.


If you have 15 minutes you can:

Take a look at your districts on a map

Start with your own congressional and state legislative districts and look at the neighborhoods and areas that have and have not been included. Do you notice any patterns or boundaries that seem unnatural? If the district weaves in and out of specific areas on purpose, you may be living in what is considered a gerrymandered district.  

Resources to help: Find your congressional district using GovTrack, Use the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to check if your state passes or fails common statistical tests showing gerrymandering, Explore state targets from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee

Now what? If you’ve learned something noteworthy about the shape or boundaries of your district, share that with some colleagues or friends. Many people acknowledge gerrymandering as a problem in general but don’t know what a gerrymandered district looks like, nor do they realize they might be living in one. As a geographer, your critique of a map goes a long way. 


If you have 30 minutes you can: 

Find out who draws the maps 

The districts into which we are grouped affect every member of the general public. These districts are set by the states, but who exactly draws the lines? Each state tackles redistricting differently and in order to get involved, you must first understand the process. Your input is critical not only because your voice matters as a citizen, but also because it is your responsibility to bring your powerful understanding of geography to the table. 

Resources to help: Use Ballotpedia's state-by-state redistricting procedures, Check the National Conference of State Legislatures list of state redistricting websites, Read this guide from the Brennan Center for Justice. 

Now what? See when your state’s redistricting officials are meeting next, and when they will be seeking public comment on new districts. Make a plan to participate. While some of this information may not be available until early 2021, now is the time to envision yourself there. Digging into the details and sharing your plan to be involved can help hold officials accountable to make the process transparent. 


If you have 45 minutes you can:

Explore criteria for drawing the lines

While the U.S. Constitution and federal law require the population to be apportioned into congressional districts as equally as practicable, much remaining criteria is left to the states. Research what your state requires when a new district is drawn. Some states require that a district be compact and contiguous, while other states have few codified criteria at all. Check to see if there were any ballot measures passed in the recent election that changed your state’s redistricting criteria or process. 

Resources to help: Check this NCSL List of Redistricting Criteria or read their Redistricting Criteria Brief, Review this student exercise from Draw the Lines PA, See projections favoring different criteria and parties with FiveThirtyEight’s Atlas of Redistricting

Now what? Once you understand what’s required and prohibited, take another look at your own district maps. Many elements, such as compactness, can be judged subjectively. Assess your state and congressional districts under these criteria and see if you think they pass the tests. As someone familiar with the physical and human geographies of your state, try to determine if some of these requirements have been overlooked or ignored in prior years. 


If you have 1 hour you can:

Draw a district on your own

Several different tools for drawing district lines are available online at no cost, and you do not have to be a GIS expert to try them out. If you know of questionable districts in your state, try redrawing those boundaries. Use this exercise to develop a critical eye for why certain areas may or may not be included in a district drawn by your state, and remember this when the redrawn maps are open for public comment in 2021.

Resources to help: Use the Districtr tool to draw your own boundaries and compare demographics, Create a free account with DistrictBuilder to use their open source tool, Start a free trial to try redistricting through Esri

Now what? You know your community better than anyone, and as a geographer you understand the critical relationships between people, where they are, and how they are grouped. You already have the geospatial savvy and now you’re equipped with information on the process. It is up to you to get involved, stay engaged, and utilize your knowledge and geography skills as an act of public service to bring competence and transparency to 2021 redistricting. 

*This guide was developed with the help of a template from GeoCivics at UCCS. To develop a similar guide or receive exercises and resources, contact geocivics50@gmail.com*