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Expert Warns Of 'Real Festival Of Partisan Gerrymandering' In 2021

An activist holds a sign outside the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019. [Sarah L. Voisin / The Washington Post via Getty Images]
An activist holds a sign outside the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019.

In writing his new book, David Daley was looking to shake off a cynicism that had been following him around for years.

The former editor-in-chief of Salon gained attention in 2016, as the man who chronicled a Republican gerrymandering machine.

Daley's book Ratf**ked gave a play-by-play account of REDMAP, the Republican plan to take over state legislatures in the 2010 election cycle, with an eye on drawing state and congressional maps during the following year's redistricting period that would keep Democrats out of power.

It worked.

In 2012, Democratic congressional candidates in Pennsylvania for instance garnered 51% of the overall vote, but that translated to just about a quarter of the congressional seats. It was a similar story in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Ohio.

"If you're a Republican, you look at [2010] and say, boy, this was effective, it was efficient and we won. We played by the rules. We changed the rules, but we still played by the law and the game," Daley told NPR in 2016. "And if the Democrats weren't smart enough to figure this out themselves, well, see you in 2020, boys."

At redistricting conferences, Daley's book is often discussed for shining a light on practices that had long gone on in the shadows.

But covering gerrymandering affected Daley. It's a cynical offshoot of democracy that's focused not on the will of the voters, but instead on shaping outcomes before the voters even cast their ballots.

"I wanted to get the rain cloud off me," he says.

With his new book, Unrigged, Daley decided to focus on how voters are fighting back — people like Desmond Meade in Florida, who helped former felons get their voting power back, and Katie Fahay, who started a redistricting revolution with a Facebook post.

"Americans came off the sidelines in 2018 and they started organizations and they signed petitions and they pushed for constitutional amendments in their state on these topics that for a long time everyone had said were wonky and that nobody understood," Daley said. "We talk a lot about Dr. Martin Luther King's moral arc of the universe being long, but bending towards justice. And I think what we learned is that that arc doesn't bend by itself."

Redistricting happens every decade after the census and the next round takes place in 2021 (although the coronavirus could put a hold on that at least for a time).

I talked with Daley about what to expect as new legislative maps get drawn, and what to expect this November after a controversial Wisconsin primary laid bare partisan divides over voting in the United States.

Daley's new book, Unrigged, is out now.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Let's start with 2021. What are you expecting when it comes to redistricting?

Daley: In 2011, Republicans had really a 5-to-1 advantage when it came to drawing congressional lines. They had complete authority in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida to draw not only all of the congressional districts, but state legislative ones as well. There's going to be a slightly more level playing field in 2021.

There are Democratic governors in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that ought to give Democrats at least some room at the table for negotiations in those states.

You've had some redistricting reform that will make the process better in Ohio. There is the very strong likelihood that Virginia voters will pass an independent commission at the ballot box in 2020. And in Michigan as well, you had an independent commission pass in 2018. So citizens will draw the lines there.

What I worry about, however, is that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that partisan gerrymandering claims are non-justiciable and they closed the federal courts to these kinds of cases in the next decade. And that really allows lawmakers in many states where one party controls the entire process to absolutely run amok without fear that the Supreme Court will step in and say that these partisan lines have gone too far.

We have seen how aggressively politicians of both parties have clung to their rigged maps over the course of this decade without any worry that the Supreme Court could step in and bring some fairness to this issue. You could see a real festival of partisan gerrymandering in 2021.

Q: So is it that in the battleground, split-control states, you'll see more fairness? And then on the extremes, on both ends we'll see this strategy? Do you expect to see it in Democratic states as well?

Daley: I think what we saw in 2011 is that whenever one party controls the entire process, what you end up with are maps that wildly favor that side.

Republicans held many more states in 2011 and they launched a really sophisticated redistricting operation during the 2010 elections to ensure that that would be the case. I think that Democrats are now just as aware of this process as Republicans were in 2010.

So in the states where Democrats do hold complete control of the process, I think you can imagine that they are locked and loaded for some revenge.

Q: Something you focused on in your first book, was that politicians maybe had the desire to do this decades ago, but that they didn't really have the means at their fingertips to be able to make these hyper-targeted maps however they please. How has the technology gotten better in the last decade?

Daley: I think [the technology] is one reason why we overlooked gerrymandering as a problem in our politics for so long. It's been with us forever. You can trace it back to Patrick Henry trying to draw James Madison out of the very first Congress.

The problem is that gerrymandering from 1790 through 2000 is really just in its infancy. It's in its minor leagues. It's politicians working from memory about which neighborhoods are friendly, and they've got magic markers and giant pieces of parchment paper.

In 2010, gerrymandering moves into its steroids era. It is highly sophisticated computer software. It's the kinds of mapping software that enables Americans to never have to ask for directions again. But every single house along the way, you know a lot about each of those people. You can start with the census and all of the information that's available on demographics. And then you're able to add so much more on top of that. Some of it is public record data sets: driver's licenses, the kind of car you drive, gun ownership.

And then there's all of the kind of private data sets that can be overlaid as well. Magazine subscriptions, information that can be gleaned off of social media, the kinds of things we leave about ourselves as we travel around the Internet that marketers and political firms and mapmakers can buy up for pennies on the dollar.

And as they draw maps and go up and down the street, they've got a very, very high level of confidence about how people in each of those homes vote and what the impact is of moving a line a block or two in any direction.

Q: You mentioned some of the reforms that have happened over the last few years, and you write about a lot of them in your new book. If you went back to the David that was working on Ratf*****d, and told him all of the changes that have been made in America in the last couple years, how surprised would he be that there's been a sort of groundswell about this thing that used to be a very niche and very in-the-weeds topic?

Daley: Oh, it's been wonderful to see. If you had told me that John Oliver would be making jokes about gerrymandering or that it would work its way into sports terminology. I read one piece in Sports Illustrated where they talk about a baseball manager gerrymandering his bullpen. Americans really understand the importance of these district lines now.

I think people in politics talked about gerrymandering earlier this decade as being a problem of geography. Democrats simply living more clustered in cities and Republicans more efficiently spread out across suburbs and rural areas.

And I think that what the elections this decade have shown is that that's not the case. That we have been sorted into these districts by politicians for deeply partisan purposes. What we have now, though, are Americans standing up and fighting back in really amazing ways.

In Michigan, you had a young woman named Katie Fahey, who was 27 years old, worked at a recycling nonprofit, who gets up two days after the 2016 election and wants to work on something truly nonpartisan in her state. She posted a message on Facebook and says, 'I want to do something about gerrymandering in Michigan. If you want to join me, sign up here.'

And that marshals in a redistricting revolution in Michigan. It's 4000 volunteers. They go out, they collect more than 425,000 signatures and they get this on the ballot there and they win with more than 60% of the vote.

There were five initiatives on gerrymandering in the 2018 election. And they happen in unexpected places: Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, Utah and Missouri. So red states, purple states.

And with the exception of Utah, where it's an extraordinarily close victory, all of the other wins are over 60% in a nation that has become as polarized as this. It's hard to get 60% for anything. It doesn't matter if it's red states, blue states, purple states. I think all Americans understand gerrymandering and all Americans hate gerrymandering. It's fundamentally cheating.

Q: I want to talk about Wisconsin, and the election that just took place there. What does it say about the general election this November?

Daley: A lot of people are viewing what happened in Wisconsin on Tuesday as a warning sign for our elections this November, but I would go a step further. I would say that what we just saw was a Republican dress rehearsal for the kind of voter suppression techniques we could well see this fall.

I think it's entirely likely that in-person voting is going to be very, very difficult in many states and cities. We don't know what the situation will be with the coronavirus. We don't know if it will come back again in cooler weather.

And we have to be thinking about how we safeguard the November election.

What I'm seeing is that Republicans have been really slow-walking both in states and in Congress on most efforts to adapt vote by mail, to give extra funding to states in cases where they have to pay for printing ballots or postage or scanners or training of workers: All of the things that would have to go along with a radical and sudden expansion of vote by mail efforts this year.

And then what you're also seeing is a lot of the fictional myths about voter fraud being repeated from that side of the aisle. What I worry about is that there could be many other Wisconsins this fall, in which election officials are overwhelmed by the number of requests for absentee ballots and they're simply not able to get all of these ballots out to people and voters aren't able to send them all back.

And then what we saw was that the U.S. Supreme Court jumped in and enforced a deadline that essentially forced many voters to stand in line if they wanted to have their votes be heard. Even those who had applied for absentee ballots weeks earlier but who hadn't gotten them in the mail.

Q: I'm trying to gauge your level of optimism around redistricting specifically. Is the next decade overall going to be better than this decade due to the reforms you've written about? Or is it really incremental?

Daley: It's really too early to say right now. There is the prospect of things being much better in a handful of states.

What I worry about, though, is that the voting rights war in this country has only become more serious and more polarized and more hard-fought over the course of this last decade. I felt much more optimistic heading into 2020 before we saw the very cynical efforts in Wisconsin earlier this week to force voters into in-person voting in the middle of a pandemic.

When I look at the kinds of things that are coming out of the mouth of the President about voter fraud and about vote by mail, things that simply are not true, things that are contradicted by every single study on vote-by-mail that ensures us that this is not a partisan issue, and that this does not create the problem of voter fraud. I worry that we are heading down a dangerous road.

But I also think that we ought to take a lot of heart and optimism from the tens of millions of Americans who came out in the 2018 election and voted for fairness for free elections. Democrats, Republicans, independents in red states and blue states and purple states, that said 'we believe in free elections and fairness.' That that is an American ideal.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.