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Take Note: David Daley On Gerrymandering And The People Trying To Make It 'Unrigged'

David Daley is the author of the book "Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy."
David Daley is the author of the book "Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy."

This Take Note is from the Democracy Works podcast.

We’ll hear about Gerrymandering and the people fighting to take the politics out of drawing districts. Redistricting, which happens every 10 years, is set to happen this year. The guest is David Daley, who just published his second book about Gerrymandering, titled “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.” 


Chris Beem: From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University, I'm Chris Beem.

Candis Smith: I'm Candis Watts Smith.

Jenna Spinelle: I'm Jenna Spinelle, and welcome to Democracy Works. And this week we are going to be talking about redistricting and our guest is David Daley, who is the author of the book, “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.” And it might seem a little odd to be talking about redistricting in the midst of everything else that is going on in our politics right now. But as I think you'll hear in the interview, there is actually a connection between gerrymandering and some of the bigger questions about the future of our politics and what type of politicians we'll have over the next decade. And redistricting is going to happen this year at some point. So, it should be on the radar even amid everything else that's going on.

Chris Beem: Yeah. Even in a normal political environment, this would be what everybody would be talking about, right? Because this is kind of the next big thing coming down the pike. 

Candis Smith: So just to also reiterate the kind of chaos that we are all experiencing. I think one of the things that's going to be really important about David Daley's book is that it really helps us to orient. It orients us both towards the states, which is where a lot of the voting power comes from and rules and laws. And it also orients us to the possible that there are people who are working every day tirelessly to do something about the things that they think are wrong with our democracy and who gets to vote and who want to try to expand the franchise sometimes up against their own representatives who are often trying to exclude more people, exclude more Americans. 

Chris Beem: Yeah. I think that's a good point. I also think it helps us to see that these issues, these separations, these points of contention go pretty far down and they're not limited to what you hear on your average cable TV talk show. So we've talked about gerrymandering on this podcast before and I don't want to get into too much detail, but just to set a little bit of the table for why we're talking about this now. Every 10 years, we have a census, we just completed one. Actually we haven't gotten the results back, but the census itself is done. It's in the constitution that we have to do this every 10 years. And the results of that census determine which states get how many representatives.

But then the other thing that happens after the census is that every state has to redraw its districts, both for the congressional districts and also for the state legislature and you usually Senate and Assembly. And so how they do that, that the 10-year census results give them the only right now, the only opportunity to do that.

Candis Smith: So the thing about the census here is every 10 years, it's not just important for the census, but it also makes the elections that occur at the 2010, 2020, 2030, makes them especially important because the party that wins the state houses are the ones who are going to have the greatest say on redistricting. So in the case of the 2020 election, it was good for Republicans who weren't Trump, and it was not good for Democrats at the state level.  

Chris Beem: Because the Republicans are in charge of either the legislatures or the governor and in many cases, both. And so therefore there's nobody contesting the lines they draw, and they're going to draw lines just like any politician would, that benefit their party.

Candis Smith: Right.

Chris Beem: And so, because there's no contested power, they're able to do basically what they want and that's why David talks about going outside the legislative process through referenda or through citizens initiative to try to come up with some better system than the fox literally guarding the henhouse.

Jenna Spinelle: There are some interesting dynamics here between people and politicians between states and the federal government and the courts. So let's go to the interview with Dave Daley.


Jenna Spinelle: Dave Daley, welcome to Democracy Works. Thanks so much for joining us. 

David Daley: Thanks for having the Jenna.

Jenna Spinelle: I'm excited to talk with you about your book “Unrigged” and all the work you've been doing. Chronicling grassroots politics over the past couple of years. And one thing that we have coming up in 2021 that might be easy to forget about is redistricting. 

You have spent a lot of your time with grassroots organizers throughout the country that were working to end the practice of gerrymandering, and at a basic level, I guess I'm wondering how they did.

David Daley: I think that the redistricting that happens in 2021 is going to be much more transparent and the public is going to be much more aware of how important it is. One of the things that has really happened over the last few years is that gerrymandering has become a hot topic. It's become something that everybody understands the importance of and the centrality to our politics for a decade. 

When I wrote my first book on this, the publisher made me give it a vulgar name because they said you can't possibly use the most boring word in the world, gerrymandering on a book on that topic. Now you can talk about gerrymandering everywhere, right? It's on John Oliver, it's on The Daily Show. It's all over the place.

So mapmakers are not going to be able to get away with doing this in private and in smoke-filled rooms and in bunkers the way that they did 10 years ago. I also think that the technology behind map-making, the sophisticated map-making software that made it so possible for partisan lawmakers in 2011, to entrench themselves in office for a decade. 

The same software that makes it possible for lawmakers to gerrymander is going to be in the hands of the people and it's going to allow us to see through what they've done. Now, there have also been amazing citizen redistricting efforts, and I chronicle the ones in Michigan and Utah and Missouri and Colorado in “Unrigged.” In Michigan, it's an amazing story. It's Katie Fahey, she's 27 years old. A lot of your listeners may be familiar with her story. Two days after the 2016 election, she wants to take on something in our politics that might be unifying, something that might get everyone in her family filled with Trump voters, Clinton voters, Bernie Sanders voters to rally around one issue. 

She picks gerrymandering in Michigan, and she goes onto Facebook and puts up a Facebook post about how she wants to take this topic on and other people who want to join her, want to reply. And they built through that one social media post, a redistricting revolution in Michigan that generated more than 425,000 signatures on a petition to put independent redistricting on the ballot there. It won in Michigan with more than 60% of the vote. It's the first time in Michigan history that a constitutional amendment is passed without the help of paid petition gatherers. The entire state political establishment didn't think this could be done. People did it. And I just think that is such a powerful thing. You had partisans drawing maps in Michigan behind closed doors in 2011, you're going to have an independent commission of citizens doing this in daylight in 2021.

Jenna Spinelle: Right. I want to come back to Katie and some of these grassroots organizers in a minute, but just sticking with redistricting here, what does the process look like over the next year and how are the Katie Fahey's of the world and all the fair districts and these types of groups. What does this coming year look like for them as far as how they're keeping an eye on what's happening, holding peoples feet to the fire, those kinds of things.

David Daley: Absolutely. We draw these new state legislative and congressional lines every 10 years after the census. And one of the things that has slowed this process down here in early 2021, is that the census numbers have not yet been reported to the states. The earliest, this is now likely to happen is mid to end of February. There's a lot of people that think April or May is really much more likely. Every state has its own process as soon as the census numbers arrive. And in a lot of states, they begin with hearings and with the crafting of a bill that include these new maps really very soon thereafter. 

There are some states of course, that in 2021 in the fall are going to be having state legislative elections. Virginia, New Jersey, the states that hold elections in off years, it's going to be very tricky and it's going to have to move very quickly in those states if they want to get new districts made.

I think that what you have are citizens in many of these states who have already organized themselves. In North Carolina, in Texas, in Ohio, in Michigan, that they're going to be watching and they're going to be in the middle of these public hearings and they're going to be testifying as to what a community of interest is. They're going to be keeping this issue alive in the news media, and they're going to be using this software to design maps that show really what a kind of fairness is possible. 

I don't think that these lawmakers are going to be able to craft maps as they did in 2011 in secret, and pretend that they're the only maps possible. They're going to be seen in public. They're going to be tested by citizens, and there's going to be much more of a spotlight on redistricting than perhaps there ever has been.

Jenna Spinelle: But some of this redistricting talk, I think gets a little bit esoteric at times as, as we're thinking it's just hard to kind of get your head around and you write in “Unrigged” that in some ways like the notion of democracy itself is at stake here, depending on the way that some of these things go, some of these places could look far less democratic than they have in the past. Can you talk more about what you mean by that?

David Daley: Sure. These district lines that are drawn are really the building blocks of our democracy, these legislative districts and congressional districts. When you draw those lines, oftentimes you have the power to select winners and losers. And because of the polarization in our politics and the geographic scattering of Democrats in cities and Republicans more efficiently spread across suburbs and rural America, the way that you craft these districts can lock a party into power for years and years, even when they win fewer votes and political parties understand this. 

And that is why there's been so much attention focused on redistricting. We elect presidents for four-year terms, but these maps that are drawn stand for a decade. And for many years, while we have had gerrymandering for as long as we've had politicians, you can trace it back to Patrick Henry trying to gerrymander James Madison out of her very first Congress.

But the technology of this really changes in 2010 to 2011, the data becomes so specific the map-making software so powerful, the computer is so fast that this is no longer partisans sitting around with a magic marker and a map. It is highly, highly sophisticated tools like Maptitude and where you can load all of the census data, all kinds of public record data sets, all kinds of private data sets and really have a complete understanding of what happens when you move a district line in any direction. 

And in so many states, the lines that were drawn in 2011 for state legislatures, they locked the party that drew them in power for 10 years. And after the 2018 election, there were 59 million Americans, almost one in five of us that lived in a state in which one, or both chambers of the state legislature were controlled by the party that won fewer votes, and that is deeply antithetical to the notion of a representative democracy, our state legislature is supposed to be the office that is most responsive to the people.

And when these lines are drawn in a way that one party controls them, no matter what, it pushes our politics to the extreme, because when a general election is not competitive, it means that the primary election usually held in the middle of the summer. It's low turnout, only the most extreme members of the party left, or right tend to participate. And you get a very different kind of politics. You get different kinds of politicians and they become insulated from the people and then policy drifts out to extremes. So these maps are really the starting point for everything that happens in a state for a decade.

Jenna Spinelle: The other thing that's kind of going through the back of my mind now, and this a much more cynical thought, but I wonder if to the point of having fair maps will lead to different types of candidates being elected to state legislatures. I wonder if we're kind of already too far down a different path there. We read about polarization and all of these things, if that's already too far gone that even if the maps are more fair, it might not necessarily lead to a change in the types of candidates that are running or are getting into office and state legislatures.

David Daley: That's a really fair question and believe me, I can match your cynicism on this. When you cover redistricting, as much as I do, lot of your naivete about politics gets shaken immediately. The story that I think is just most powerful when it comes to showing the impact of these district lines is a story from North Carolina. And this is the story of Mark Meadows. In 2010, when Republicans take control of the state legislature in North Carolina, they decide that they want to draw a congressional map that as the chairman of the committee says at the time explicitly creates 10 Republican seats and three democratic seats in a state that is probably narrowly Republican, but pretty close and pretty competitive statewide. They do this by going to the Western part of the state, where there had been a swing district that had gone back and forth throughout the 2000s.

It had elected a Republican in 2000, 2002 after 9/11. By 2006, as public dissatisfaction sours over the Gulf War and the economy it elects a Democrat, a conservative Democrat named Heath Shuler, who the football fans will remember as a quarterback with the Washington Football Team. Shuler even holds the seat in 2010. But when he sees the map that is drawn in 2011, he takes one look and retires immediately because what Republicans did is they crack the City of Asheville in half. They drew a line through the most liberal kind of hippie vegan city in his district. They put half of the voters into a new district and half of the voters into Patrick McHenry's district another conservative Republican. And as a result, they created two Republican districts down there, simply by how they drew that line.

Mark Meadows is a sandwich shop owner and he runs for the seat. It's a wide open Republican primary, six, seven candidates. Meadows runs essentially as a hard right birther, you can find the video online of him saying, "I'm going to send Barack Obama back to Kenya or wherever it is that he comes from." Meadows wins this primary with about 37, 38% of the vote. Goes on to Washington wins the seat because it has been drawn to elect the most extreme winner of a primary. He goes to Washington, he files the parliamentary motion that knocks John Bayner a Republican out of the speaker's chair. He essentially forces the government shutdown of 2013. He then goes and becomes Donald Trump's chief of staff. He's the most powerful man in Washington in many ways. And he's created by redistricting.

If those districts are drawn in a different way, we don't have a Mark Meadows and his ilk in office. And I think what happened with the gerrymandering of this last decade is that it inflicted a Frankenstein's monster on our politics, that the folks who drew these lines, I think they wanted to lock in a partisan advantage for themselves, but I don't think that they understood that what they were really doing was pushing our politics to such an angry, resentful place and is they're coming back from it. It's going to be very difficult, but it has to start with fixing what was broken and what was broken is the very idea of fair elections and representation itself.

Jenna Spinelle: Yeah. It's like a be careful what you wish for type of scenario or something like that. So, your book “Unrigged” is the story of these individuals and these groups and volunteers across the country that really take action and put boots on the ground on not just gerrymandering, but lots of other issues. And I guess I'm wondering if these individual stories I think are great and certainly inspiring, but do you have any sense of what kind of the breadth of this are? I mean, how many Katie Fahey's or Luke Mayville's or the other folks out there? I mean are these people needles in haystacks or are there lots more people who are doing this work that just maybe don't quite get the spotlight that they have?

David Daley: In 2018, you had five states that did initiatives or constitutional amendments on redistricting. So along with Katie Fahey in Michigan, you had Utah, Ohio, Colorado, and Missouri. In 2020, you saw this pass in Virginia and there were efforts in Oklahoma and Arkansas and Oregon and out in the Dakotas. And many of those got stymied either by COVID and the pandemic, which made it more difficult to get out and collect signatures or by state political establishments that filed lawsuits and essentially knocked them off of the ballot. So certainly this is not easy.

Luke Mayville is another amazing story in Idaho where they have, it's certainly a deep red state, but Luke and a group called Reclaim Idaho were able to organize and win expansion of Medicaid there in 2018. And that happened as well in Nebraska and other states that we think of as red states. And I think that when you look at Luke, when you look at Katie, when you look at Desmond Meade and the folks in Florida who won a restoration of voting rights for the 1.4 million people in that state who had a felony conviction in their past and had served their time but had essentially lost the franchise forever due to a law that dated back to the Jim Crow era. 

There has been such powerful movements that have been created in states, by real individuals who have logged off of Twitter and turned off MSNBC and got to work knocking on doors, trying to persuade their neighbors. And these have been trans partisan. The victory in Florida and I know it's been undone in many ways by a gerrymandered legislature and will be decided now in the courts.

But when you look at the magnificence of what Desmond Meade and Neil Volz were able to win in Florida in 2018, this is a year in which voters elect a Republican governor, a Republican US senator. It's not a blue wave year in Florida in 2018, but 64% of voters there signed on and said, yes, we think someone who has made a mistake and served his or her time ought to get their voice and civic affairs back. That's an incredibly powerful thing. It shows that these issues are not Democratic issues or Republican issues, but deeply American questions of fairness and people wanting their government to work and their elections to be fair. And I think that there's a lot of hope that we can take from that.

Jenna Spinelle: So what becomes of these movements, these coalitions now. In some places the ballot measures have passed and there, it seems maybe at least on its face that their work is done. Are they looking to move on to another issue or are there still other parts of things like Medicare expansion, like redistricting, like felony disenfranchisement in Florida, are there other parts of those issues that they're focusing on? Are they looking to move their energies elsewhere?

David Daley: I think you've got your finger on the most important question, which has been that all of these initiatives while they have won and been successful, have run into opposition from legislatures in these states and politicians who feel like they're insulated from the public and who have tried to block them or slow them down in the actual enactment phase. So one of the really important lessons that I think people have learned is that a victory is never complete, and it's never over, not on election day. In many times, not ever. A victory has to be continually defended. And I mean, Dr. King talked about an arc of the moral universe that is long but bends toward justice. 

And I think what we all have to realize is that arc doesn't bend by itself, that we've all got to have our hands on it if we want to pull it in the direction of fairness and more democracy, and that you can't simply put your hand on the arch on election day. If we want to live in a multiracial democracy that upholds the ideals that we want this country to live up to, all of us have to have our hands on that arc at all times.

Jenna Spinelle: From the folks that you're talking to, where do you see the grassroots energy turning over the next year or two, or are there perhaps issues or causes that have not received as much grassroots support here to fore that could maybe have an opportunity to become the next gerrymandering, for example and really kind of move the needle here as we look to the future?

David Daley: It's a good question. I fear on the other hand that the reality of the next couple of years is going to be that those of us who want to protect democracy and voting rights may find ourselves on the defensive. I worry that what we have seen over the last several weeks and months out of the administration in Washington and the fight over essentially baseless accusations of voter fraud in this campaign are going to lead to a lot of new bills and activity in states in order to create new obstructions between citizens and the ballot box, and that the fight that we're going to have in state legislatures around the country over the next two and four years is going to be over how easy or how difficult it is to cast a ballot. 

We saw this during a pandemic, right? That most States expanded, mail-in voting, absentee voting in order to make it easier for people to cast ballots. Which states are going to be willing to lock those improvements in for the longterm and which are now going to try and take them away. We've already seen in Georgia and in Texas and Pennsylvania efforts to expand voter ID, to roll back the mail in voting. In Georgia, where there are Republicans who are very frustrated with the secretary of state who has been very courageous in enforcing and standing up for the fairness of the election that was run there. 

There are lawmakers in the Georgia legislature that wants to make the secretary of state a position that is appointed by the legislature instead of elected by the people. So we are entering into what I think is going to be a really interesting period. And I fear in many ways that the answer to the question of how easy it is for you to vote, very soon is going to depend on what state do you live in and which party controls your state legislature.

Jenna Spinelle: So all of the, or at least most of the kind of success stories we've been talking about here have come as a result of the ballot initiative process. Do you know of any parallels, similar stories that happened through a more traditional legislative means? I know here in Pennsylvania, we've had several times while there was creating an independent redistricting commission or the the Lieutenant governor going on a marijuana legalization listening tour, we don't have ballot measures here, so we're trying to come up with these other ways, but nothing seems to have worked yet. Do you know of any other ways that folks have gone about pushing for these changes outside of ballot measures?

David Daley: I think the victory in Virginia is one that can look at and feel really good about because there is no independent initiative possibility on redistricting there. And voters had to organize and lobby their legislators in order to win the independent commission that will go into effect in 2021. They had to convince lawmakers that this was important, that enough of voters cared. They had to convince Republicans who controlled the legislature in 2019, and also the Democrats who won the legislature and controlled it in 2020 to pass the exact same amendment two years in a row so that it could then go to voters for approval. 

This is the first time that a state legislature has voluntarily turned over this much control over the drawing of their lines, really in the country's history. And it was only made possible because citizens organized and showed up in Richmond and prove to lawmakers that this mattered to them. Can that happen every place? You know, not necessarily you all have been fighting and trying just as hard and Carol Cuno homes, a fair district PA group has been doing this in Harrisburg. I know, and working so effectively. And they had a wonderful bill that I believe had more co-sponsors than any legislation in the last session of the legislature there, it's not proof that success is possible, but it's certainly a roadmap that shows that sometimes it can be.

Jenna Spinelle: Sure. So as we kind of bring things to a close here, Dave, what else are you watching? What other stories are on your radar as you look out to the rest of this year?

David Daley: I think a really important question is going to be the question of citizen voting age population and whether or not state legislatures can draw district lines that are based not on total population, which has been the long time standard for state legislatures and is the constitutional standard for Congress and for congressional districts or whether they can use numbers based on citizens over the age of 18. And this would have really a major effect if state legislatures made this move. 

You could see States like Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Georgia, for example, where this has been talked about, and it would essentially shift political power and make districts older, whiter, more conservative and more rural. And this will, I think, has the possibility to become the real legislative battle ground and legal battle ground of the next decade. Whether or not the states have that, right. Whether it is a violation of one person, one vote and it has the potential really to remake and redefine the essence of representation.

Jenna Spinelle: Yeah. Geez, that is a big story. I feel like we could have a whole other conversation to [inaudible 00:39:44] but I know that you will be doing your due diligence in your reporting on it over the next months and years and maybe we'll have you back on sometime down the road to talk about it, but in the meantime, thank you so much for joining us today.

David Daley: Always a pleasure. Thank you for this podcast. It's so wonderful. Thanks.

Jenna Spinelle is the Communications Specialist for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. She is responsible for shaping all of the institute's external communication, including website content, social media, multimedia, and media outreach.
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