How to teach gerrymandering and its many subtle, hard problems

Ben Kraft teaches a unit on gerrymandering — rigging electoral districts to ensure that one party always wins — to high school kids in his open MIT Educational Studies Program course. As he describes the problem and his teaching methodology, I learned that district-boundaries have a lot more subtlety and complexity than I'd imagined at first, and that there are some really chewy math and computer science problems lurking in there.

Kraft's pedagogy is lively and timely and extremely relevant. It builds from a quick set of theoretical exercises and then straight into contemporary, real live issues that matter to every person in every democracy in the world. This would be a great unit to adapt for any high school civics course — you could probably teach it in middle school, too.

At this point we move out of idealized Splashland and back into the real world. We start by adding to our list of things to consider when drawing districts. I hand out some real maps that illustrate some of the examples we talked about. Racial gerrymandering and the Voting Rights Act are a great example – it's something that we worked with above, that has complex and nonobvious effects, and is in the news regularly, with Shelby County and two Alabama cases in the Supreme Court. At any given time there are some good examples from the recent news that we can talk about, and students can see how they directly fit into the maps we drew.

We talk about various methods of districting (and about the recent Supreme Court case about Arizona's commission), and about options that avoid the districting game entirely – at-large districts, or mixed-member proportional representation – and the problems they solve and create. Sometimes I tie in the work I did for 6.S897, or real papers in political science (Chen and Rodden is a great one), to give them a sense for how one could go even deeper into the issue.

And that's it! There are still a lot of things I want to improve about this class (and please suggest more in the comments section), but I've liked how it's run so far. I've had fun teaching it, and I think students end up with at least some notion that gerrymandering, and redistricting more generally, is about more than just politicians being good or evil in an obvious way.

How I Teach Gerrymandering [Ben Kraft/MIT Educational Studies Program]

(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)