Online Game Shows Why Ward Maps Raise Controversy

If you wonder why Chicago’s remapping of its 50 wards raised so much controversy and took so long, you can try remapping a few wards yourself, courtesy of urban planners at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Max Dieber, director of the Urban Data Visualization Lab in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, saw the recent ward wrangling as a chance to interest young people in civic affairs by appealing to their computer-gamesmanship.

He and his staff devised the Chicago Ward Redrawing Game to demonstrate why everyone needs to participate in the census, vote knowledgeably for their local representatives, and understand the Voting Rights Act.

During the recent ward remapping for 2015, many residents complained that they would no longer be represented by the alderman they elected; their neighborhoods were corralled into wards along with distant neighborhoods that do not share their concerns; and aldermen were mapped out of their wards and out of their jobs.

“Whatever is necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act is okay with us,” Dieber said. “The Voting Rights Act requires that minority votes not be diluted. Since it is possible to do so by the way wards are drawn, it is a very relevant concern. The majority wards should match the city’s population as a whole.”

The game is limited to an area surrounding UIC, bounded roughly by Kedzie and Carroll avenues, 59th Street, and Lake Michigan. It has four steps, each of which must be achieved without undoing another:

  1. Configure each ward to have 51,000-57,000 people, in keeping with the city’s requirement for population equity.
  2. Ensure that one ward is at least 55 percent African American and one at least 55 percent Latino. For a bonus, configure two such wards for each group.
  3. Make sure the aldermen’s homes remain in their respective wards.
  4. Gerrymander one ward to produce an Asian majority.

“There are a few other redistricting games online, but this is the only one using real census data and political boundaries,” Dieber said. “The point is to see how a novice would look at it.”

The researchers continue to refine the game for use as a public information tool. They are soliciting online feedback and drafting a teacher’s guide.