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Top 5 Ugliest Districts: Partisan Gerrymandering 101

No one said redistricting was a pretty process, but in some cases Congressional mapmaking gets downright ugly.

It’s not a coincidence that a couple of the most awkwardly shaped districts have a minority population of at least 50 percent. Mapmakers often get creative to adhere to the Voting Rights Act.

The other most hideous districts are classic cases of partisan gerrymandering. Mapmakers packed as many Democrats or Republicans as possible into a district or spread it out to fulfill a lawmaker’s wishes — or future ambitions.

The worst could be still to come. Three big states with major population changes — New York, Pennsylvania and Florida — have yet to draw their lines.

A former California Congressman famously declared his redraw as his “contribution to modern art” in the early 1980s. In that spirit, here is Roll Call’s gallery of the five ugliest districts of the cycle — so far.

North Carolina’s 4th district

Tar Heel Republicans packed all the Democrats they could into this district. It’s just one controversial part of an aggressive redraw intended to oust four House Democrats next year.

But the 4th district is the worst formation on the new map, appearing more like an archipelago than a contiguous land mass. Republicans packed most of the Research Triangle into the district, including the liberal university towns of Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Given the area’s famous athletic programs, one Democrat griped that you could kick a field goal over the 40-yard width of the district at one dimension. Democratic Reps. Brad Miller and David Price will likely face off here.

Maryland’s 3rd district

It’s hard to believe Rep. John Sarbanes’ (D) district could get much worse than its present form. But Democrats drew a doozy for Sarbanes by moving parts of Montgomery County into the 3rd district. The district immediately drew comparisons to a Rorschach test for its splotchy shape. One local reporter said it took him nine hours to drive from end to end. So what’s the goal behind giving Sarbanes a district shaped like an amusement park ride? Sources speculate he wants to lay the groundwork for a Senate bid someday, and the pinwheel shape puts him in nearly all of the state’s key media markets.

Ohio’s 9th district

The Buckeye State lost two House seats, and Republicans moved Democratic Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich into the same lakeshore district. But the two Democrats don’t exactly live next door to each other — more like 120 miles apart. So Republicans drew a thin district connecting their homes, stretching from west Cleveland to Toledo along the Lake Erie coastline. The district is connected by a bridge that’s only 20 yards wide, as well as by a single beach at one point. When Crane Creek State Park beach is covered during high water, Democrats argue the district is not even contiguous.

Michigan’s 14th district

Republicans went to great lengths to pack as many minority and Democratic voters into this downtown Detroit district, where Democratic Reps. Hansen Clarke and Gary Peters will run. The result is a winding, economically diverse district that follows the city’s famous 8 Mile Road.  The road serves as a symbolic divide between urban blight and the affluent suburbs. The new 14th aims to bridge that divide, starting in the wealthy Grosse Pointe suburbs on the lake and moving west and north to blue-collar Pontiac City. Peters’ home is a mere five miles outside the 8th district, 15 houses away from the 11th district and 500 yards outside the 14th district. Now that’s some creative mapmaking.

Illinois’ 4th district

Democrats packed as many Hispanic voters as possible into Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s (D) redrawn seat. They created a supermajority Hispanic district that has attracted considerable unfavorable attention, both among the delegation and in court. A GOP lawsuit claims this district is illegal because there are enough Hispanic voters in the state for two majority-minority districts. Three black Democrats in the delegation expressed similar concerns. Down the line, this district will only get more interesting. Hispanics make up the fastest-growing ethnic community in the Chicago area.

Correction: Nov. 14, 2011

The article originally featured the current configuration of Illinois’ 4th district instead of the redrawn version.

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