John Oliver explains gerrymandering, “packing and cracking” on Last Week Tonight

Credit: Last Week Tonight / YouTube
Credit: Last Week Tonight / YouTube /

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver took some time this week to explain gerrymandering and where the weird shapes of voting districts come from.

You wouldn’t accept Neapolitan ice cream that’s 75 percent strawberry, so to, John Oliver argues, should you not accept gerrymandering. Or, if ice cream metaphors aren’t to your taste: the HBO series Last Week Tonight explained how politicians assign potentially disruptive voters like awful relatives at a wedding.

During this Sunday’s episode, John Oliver and his staff went in on gerrymandering, the centuries-old practice of redrawing voting district lines for party majority and political advantage. If the whole thing sounds like a bad joke, that’s because it is. The name itself comes from a 19th century politician named Elbridge Gerry who drew a district so misshapen it looked like a salamander, which a contemporary then called a “gerrymander.”

It’s not even just a partisan fight: In 2012, Democrats redrew in the map to carve out the block on which a challenger lived. People who wanted to vote for Hakeem Jeffries arrived to find he wasn’t on the ballot for their district. As Rep. Jeffries put it, “Brooklyn politics can be pretty rough, but that move was gangsta.”

You can watch the entire segment from Last Week Tonight on gerrymandering – and find out what “packing and cracking” is – in the YouTube video below.

As Oliver points out, redrawing of voting district lines is necessary as populations shift and technically, it’s not even illegal to gerrymander for partisan support. (The line is, hypothetically, at racial discrimination.) Moreover, there’s not clear consensus on how to organize a district. One of the most widely ridiculed districts – held together by a single road – actually receives a lot of support for tying together communities of interest who would benefit from shared representation.

Complicating matters still, both parties have a long history of redrawing district lines and a few states are trying out giving the task to independent commissions. Meanwhile, a case of redistricting in Wisconsin is en route to the Supreme Court, marking the first time the Justices, now including Neil Gorsuch, will weigh in on the matter.

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It, of course, would not be a Last Week Tonight segment without John Oliver reminding us that this kind of chaos is what makes America great. Come for the civics lesson and stay for an ode honoring all your crazy decisions.