Arts & Humanities

Winner takes all

“Packing and Cracking,” a new production in the Process Series, uses interactive games to show how political parties manipulate elections through gerrymandering in the digital age.

Printed in March 1812, this political cartoon was drawn in reaction to the newly drawn state senate election district of South Essex created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the Democratic-Republican Party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists. The caricature satirizes the bizarre shape of a district in Essex County, Massachusetts, as a dragon-like
Printed in March 1812, this political cartoon shows the original "Gerrymander."

Barely mentioning Republicans or Democrats, the creators of “Packing and Cracking” used jackalopes and buffalo, dots of purple, green and orange and Google maps to explain gerrymandering in a nonpartisan, interactive online experience last week.

The show’s purpose is to answer the question, “Do we choose our politicians, or do our politicians choose us?”

“It’s not a lecture, but you learn things,” said Rachel Gita Karp, co-creator and director of this most recent production from The Process Series: New Works in Development. The program to develop new and significant performing arts pieces is part of the communication department in the College of Arts & Sciences.

“Politics are already competitive, so our games are noncompetitive and fun,” she said.

Joseph Amodei, co-creator and designer of “Packing and Cracking” agreed. “Playing games is like a rehearsal space for your life, so that’s why we use these games.”

This screen shot from Game #10 shows where the addresses selected by participants fit into election districts.

This screen shot from Game #10 shows where the addresses selected by participants fit into election districts.

Twenty-one people who registered online for the events on Oct. 23 and Oct. 24 played the interactive games on Zoom, while dozens of others watched on Facebook Live.

Game #1 introduced the gerrymandering concept by showing how a weasel consultant can divide the jungle in favor of the buffalo or the jackalopes, depending on who’s paying him. After being assigned to either purple, orange or green teams in Game #3, participants were caught up in the partisan spirit in Game #8, when they divided colored dots on a shared gameboard into districts that favored their team.

“You just did some packing and cracking,” Karp told them. “Packing,” she explains, occurs when map drawers concentrate voters of one type into one district and leave few in the surrounding districts. “Cracking” occurs when a type of voter is spread out in multiple districts and their voting power is diluted.

An old idea

While gerrymandering has gotten a lot of press in recent years, it isn’t a new concept. The term dates back to 1812, when Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts presided over the redrawing of partisan election districts in his state that resulted in one so bizarrely shaped that it resembled a salamander. Political cartoonists and editors dubbed the district the “Gerrymander,” and the name stuck as a way to describe oddly shaped districts and the partisan process that creates them.

But gerrymandering is a little different in the computer age. “What’s really changed recently is technology that has allowed gerrymanders to get much more specific and much more foolproof,” Karp said. In this iteration of “Packing and Cracking,” specifically about North Carolina, a video illustrated how a recent redistricting split the campus of N.C. A&T State University down the middle, for example.

“The lines are invisible,” Karp said. “The games we play help them feel the split of it and also how it directly affects them. People see how easy it is to do.”

In Game #9, participants received a map of a randomly selected gerrymandered district and drew what it looked like to them. The game creators provided examples like the “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck” district in Pennsylvania, the “Earmuffs” district in Illinois and “The Blood Spatter at a Crime Scene” district in Maryland. The headings for each game are written in Ugly Gerry, a font created using gerrymandered Congressional districts from across the nation for each letter of the alphabet.

"Gerry stole my vote" written in Ugly Gerry font.

One of the slogans used by the creators of the Ugly Gerry font is “Gerry stole my vote.”

Better online?

The creators of “Packing and Cracking” developed it as interactive theater and first staged it in New York and Pennsylvania in August 2019. “People were sitting around tables and playing games together with a facilitator,” Karp said.

But with the restrictions of the pandemic, they had to reconfigure the North Carolina version of the show as an online experience, using Zoom and a website with a shared gameboard. “It may even be a stronger piece on the internet,” said Joseph Megel, artistic director of The Process Series.

Each show focuses on one state. So far, the performance artists have picked Pennsylvania and North Carolina because of the attention each has received in recent years about redistricting. Two maps drawn up by North Carolina legislators have been rejected by the courts, one for being racist (2011) and the other for being partisan (2016). Amodei is also a Carolina alumnus and grew up in North Carolina. One game shows Amodei’s childhood home on a map divided into election districts.

Poster promoting Packing and Cracking: A Digital Mapmaking Event About Gerrymandering in North CarolinaBecause 100 of the state’s legislative districts are considered “safe” seats due to gerrymandering, legislators in these districts no longer feel accountable to the voters, said Jennifer Bremer of the North Carolina League of Women Voters in a video interview for “Packing and Cracking.”

“They’re completely cut off from any accountability to voters. And if you don’t have accountability to the voters, you do not have democracy,” she said.

Interviews with various politicians and nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, plus lots of careful research helps the presentation avoid partisanship. Instead “Packing and Cracking” focuses on the negative effects of gerrymandering itself and concludes with a web page of links to resources about voting, redistricting and the census.

“We wanted to make it a nonpartisan experience. Polling suggests that, once you remove the politics, no one likes gerrymandering,” Amodei said. “It’s like cheating.”

Recordings of the 90-minute “Packing and Cracking” experiences will air on The People’s Channel through Nov. 3.