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Obama calls for an end to gerrymandering in the State of the Union

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Gerrymandering rarely gets primetime political coverage on network TV, but President Barack Obama made an exception during his State of the Union address Tuesday night. He called for a handful of changes to the political system, including redistricting reform, campaign finance reform, and voting rights protections — though he was vague on the details of each.

"If we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a congressman or a senator or even a president," Obama said. "We have to change the system to reflect our better selves."

First, Obama said, "We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around." The president has condemned gerrymandering before — for instance, in his January 2015 interview with Vox — but many political scientists think his emphasis on it as a key cause of polarization is a bit misplacedAnd, ironically, a well-executed gerrymander of the Illinois state Senate was a key step in Obama's rise to political prominence, as Ryan Lizza chronicled in a 2008 New Yorker article.

Regardless, reforms of gerrymandering could help give voters more of a choice in who represents them.

As a second reform, Obama continued, "We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections ." However, he acknowledged that reformers are hemmed in about what they can do by both the Supreme Court and the recent intense partisan polarization of the issue at the national level, adding, "If our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution."

And third, he said, "We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now" — implicitly nodding both to those long voting lines he promised to "fix" during his 2012 victory speech and to the voter ID laws he's criticized as an obstacle to Americans trying to exercise their voting rights. "Over the course of this year," Obama continued, "I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do." Read the full text of his speech here.