RALEIGH, North Carolina — Once every ten years, the map of America turns into a board game.
"The party that has the most seats has the power of the pen. They get to draw the maps," said Bill Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause North Carolina.
What he's talking about is redistricting – when state congressional districts are redrawn to reflect the population gain or decline. Some states lose seats, others gain seats, all based on the census count.
In some states, a nonpartisan panel draws the districts, but in 39 states, the lawmakers choose their own district borders.
"I think most people are stunned to learn that. And I hate to use the word. Our elections are rigged. We live in a democracy, but because of the way the districts are drawn, we know who is going to win by and large," he said.
Common Cause is a non-partisan group whose mission is to protect fair elections. Something Phillips doesn’t believe can happen with how the system is set up.
"Out of the 435 congressional contests that will be up in November. Maybe 40 of them at most are actually competitive. That's just not healthy," he said.
You can see what he’s talking about by looking at the shapes in some of these districts. Take Illinois’ newly drawn 17thdistrict. We all can agree that this… as far as shapes go… is an odd one. People like Phillips say it looks this way because of the party in power.
In this case, democrats want to include as many democratic voters as possible.
In Lousiana, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, despite being more than an hour away are in one blue district together in a sea of red. This pattern repeats across the country in states where lawmakers map the maps.
"Voting and redistricting is a part of the game of chess. So what is happening is that you have a group a party that looks to a stack the chips, or it looks to dilute the vote of others and it looks to draw lies in their favor," said Eric Claville, a political and legal analyst.
The practice of drawing lines in favor of political parties is called gerrymandering. Both Claville and Philips say gerrymandering has been one of the many ways politicians have tried to silence the voice of disenfranchised groups, like African Americans.
"We still see redistricting done that will often be discriminatory to Black voters, and by that, I mean districts are drawn that might pack Black voters or crack, and that is diluting, the actual vote of an African American voter," said Phillips.
Ohio, New York, Mississippi, Texas and North Carolina are some of the states with ongoing contentious maps battles. Political parties are suing over maps drawn by opposing parties.
"To protect the rights of all, to be able to vote and not just be able to vote, but also to vote in districts that are fair, that are equitable and that are challenging and not those districts that are going to disenfranchise the power of the voter," said Claville.
Learning about this issue can make voters feel powerless. Advocates say that is not the case. If these practices concern you, you still have a voice and you can use it to rallying change for non-partisan redistricting practices.
"No matter how much money is spent, no matter what happens in the media, it boils down to this one point: one person, one vote. So if you could engage, if you could bring together a mass of votes, then you have the power in order to dictate the conversation and ultimately the outcome," said Claville.