This Is Not A Drill: Rights Under Attack, State Lawmakers, And The Danger of Skewed District Lines

Q&A with researcher Joshua Clark of the Othering & Belonging Institute of Berkeley: “The march of history isn’t inevitably one of progress.”

II t would be difficult to understate the danger of redistricting and gerrymandering in the United States, so I’ll start with a seeming hyperbole that is actually just a fact: “one person, one vote” is currently a fallacy. And this notion of government representation — of a true American democracy — is deeply bound up with the redrawing of congressional and state legislative districts.

The redrawing happens every 10 years, after the census, “to reflect the changes in population,” but in actuality these new boundaries are often used to protect incumbents and parties currently in power, leverage specific demographics (often harming them in the process), and inevitably induce further political polarization. Redistricting is a vital consideration in any conversation about how much “one vote” actually counts in any election.

The word gerrymandering dates back to 1812 to Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts; he presided over a new State Senate map designed to keep his opposition, the Federalist Party, in the minority.

// Courtesy of the New York Times

And while the landmark Voting Rights Act in 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting — by the end of the year 250,000 new Black voters had registered — our voting system is still plagued by inequitable, predatory, and partisan tactics sanctioned, in part, by our own laws. In 2019, the Supreme Court found that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” but it said nothing about state courts.

In short, redistricting is complicated, fraught, and sits at the crux of how our country is run and who gets to run it.

I got the chance to speak with Joshua Clark about his recent study — Anti-Democracy Cascades — for the Othering & Belonging Institute in Berkeley about the dire effects of disproportional representation, the open attack on voting rights, and what we can do about it.

Can you break down why you were drawn to study district lines to begin with? You mentioned in our initial talk that district lines aren’t as “sexy” as voter ID laws or voter suppression mechanisms (and I agree with this observation!) but in actuality they play just as vital a role in our democracy. Can you talk about their important — and fraught — position in our democracy?

I should say, I don’t want to sound like I think voter ID laws and other barriers to voter access are overblown or over-discussed. Actually, none of this is discussed enough!

The research brief that I recently released with the Othering and Belonging Institute really started with the question:

Why is it that there are all these swing states where — despite being nearly 50/50 or “purple” states — Republicans have the legislative majorities to move radical agendas? How are they in this position to curtail rights and freedoms unchecked?

The fact that these states are run by Republicans is sort of glossed in most press coverage as, “Democrats do really poorly down ballot there.” (Meaning non-presidential, more local races.)

In 2020, the disconnect between how well the Biden-Harris ticket did versus how many state legislative seats Democratic candidates won was particularly stark in several states. So that seemed worth investigating, and the most intuitive way to do that was by adding up the results from all of the state legislative races.

When I did that, it wasn’t hard to see that the statewide vote totals for legislative races in places like Georgia, North Carolina, and Michigan weren’t too different from the presidential election totals. The issue was how those votes were divided up by district lines.

I wrote a brief a few years ago that came to the conclusion that, for the most part, laws restricting voter access prevent people from voting when other conditions prevail; it’s not a phenomenon that operates entirely on their own.

Meaning, votes are suppressed where these unjustifiable laws intersect with voters being not well-connected to civic institutions, denied access to voter education, excluded from political agency and belonging, etc.

That means that, though the laws are unjust, there are clear tools for blunting their impact. Most of all, it’s the work of year-round voter engagement and power-building organizations that focus on reaching people who are largely written off by politicians and campaigns.

These organizations should not have to be asked to quote-unquote “out-organize” laws that make it difficult for people to vote. But arguably those organizations could do it. If you look at a Black Voters Matter, or a Make the Road, or a Woke Vote — they’re so good at voter outreach, education, and engagement, if properly funded, they could do it.

District lines are different. Once the lines are set for a particular election, that’s it. If they’re skewed to protect an incumbent or party, there is no “out-organizing” them.

What we’ve seen in the 2021 redistricting cycle is the near elimination of competitive districts for U.S. Congress. Lines across the country have been drawn to cluster together solid majorities of voters from one party or the other.

This is literally politicians choosing their voters rather than voters choosing their politicians. That is a very serious problem.

Your study shows that district lines “dramatically inflated” the Republican majorities that passed some of the most controversial voter-access restrictions and redistricting maps in 2021…can you talk about this phenomenon and what the implications are?

In a nutshell, we’re talking about a system in which fundamentally anti-democratic voting structures are being passed into law by legislative majorities that were themselves created by anti-democratic — or anti-majoritarian — setups.

So I just spoke about the state laws that are being passed to take away voting freedoms, and political maps that disempower voters from exercising real choice. I think that for most Americans, if they learn about these, they know that they’re wrong. But I suspect that where people stop short of being outraged is by telling themselves, “Well, but at the end of the day, those are the legislators that the voters put in power, so maybe these anti-voter laws are what the voters wanted.”

What my study shows is that, in fact, these state legislative majorities do not reflect the will of the electorates as manifest in the actual votes cast.

I’ll give you a particularly stark example: Michigan.

There, the current state senators were elected in 2018. About 108,000 more voters chose their local Democratic candidate than chose Republicans. And yet, Republicans took 22 out of 38 seats, because of how the lines are drawn. In Michigan’s state house, legislators were elected in 2020. Again, more Michiganders chose Democratic candidates, but Republicans won the majority of seats.

So both legislative houses are run by the party that received less votes.

In the other states on which my study focuses — Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina — it isn’t as extreme; it’s not minority-party rule like in Michigan. But you have Republican dominance in state legislatures in which an allocation of seats that was proportional to actual votes would give Republicans barely one-vote majorities. That difference between a 60–40 majority and a one-vote majority makes a world of difference for passing unpopular legislation.

In discussing your findings, you said Democratic Party folks and their consultants will often say, “You just need to turn out more, vote all the way down the ballot, and elect more of us!” But that misplaces the blame, and fails to shine a light on the real, structural problem. Can you talk about how we can better address this systemic issue?

In the immediate term, we need federal legislation that establishes national standards for what counts as an illegal partisan gerrymander. This type of guardrail on political-boundary manipulation is an urgently needed step, even if an incomplete solution.

Strong provisions were included in the Freedom to Vote Act that was passed by the U.S. House last year, but filibustered in January by Republicans in the Senate.

Next, we should remove the power to draw district lines from the politicians and parties that stand to benefit from them. According to polling, that is a sentiment widely shared by voters. And we have examples in the form of “independent redistricting commissions” — these commissions exist in several states already, and there is plenty of evidence on how to structure and compose them so that they will produce fairer district maps.

Finally, I argue in my recent study that we need deeper changes than these if we are going to achieve the promise of “one person, one vote.” This involves moving away from single-member legislative districts toward a different model in which seats are allocated proportionally, in reflection of the share of votes received by each party.

Such systems have existed for much of U.S. history; they’re hardly without precedent. But it’s not a change that can realistically be pushed overnight, because the alternatives to the current system are so unfamiliar to the public.

We should start building awareness — and small-scale examples — of those alternatives now as foundations for transformative change in the not-too-distant future.

You also said — and I agree! — that there are some problematic racialized ideas around “who is paying attention” to local elections and who is “more informed,” but when you actually add up the numbers that theory doesn’t hold water. Can you talk about this element as well?

Sure. To be honest, this was a big motivation for my study. There is a common assumption that the reason Biden did much better than Democratic state legislative slates is that there were all these voters who showed up to vote for him (or against Trump), but who didn’t bother to vote “down ballot.” With 2020 being such a high turnout election, maybe it was easy to jump to the conclusion that the ones who voted in this way were new or returning voters — people who vote occasionally, but not in every election.

If you are a Democratic Party operative or consultant, this is an easy “type” of voter to blame when things don’t go well for you. And unfortunately, that can lend itself to racialized — as well as classist and ageist — stereotypes and value judgments about different voter groups.

In short, I saw that the Democratic Party’s disappointments down ballot were starting to get pinned on young voters and voters of color. The perpetuation of that story has a lot of potential adverse consequences, so it should absolutely not be accepted at face value. When you actually check the receipts, it turns out that story is wrong.

What should ‘the people’ be demanding? How do we combat this dangerous shift away from majoritarian representative government…?

There are a lot of things that people might do, and should be doing, because there are so many fronts on which the democratic project in the U.S. is really under attack.

What’s tricky about answering your question is this: To be effective, you need to be organized with others and make demands that push the right pressure points for change, and those pressure points differ a lot depending on where you call home. In some places the advice will be, “write letters to x representative” and in others it’ll be something different.

So here’s advice that goes for anyone, anywhere: You need to connect with the organizations that are doing pro-democracy and voting rights work already, and the more local the groups, the better.

I say join something that already exists because this allows you to not have to do a whole research project and come up with an impact strategy yourself. There are brilliant groups working on these issues, and they know how to organize people for change.

And I say local is better, because that puts you in community with other people and those connections are vital for building and sustaining engagement. There may be things that can be done on screens, but for most people, those things are not effective for making any kind of real impact. Use the screen to figure out what group is right for you to join, but then take action as much as possible “IRL.”

Anything else you want to say? Things people should know to empower themselves?

It’s really just this: Having a representative democratic system in the United States is not guaranteed. You may have been born and lived your whole life in this type of system, but that doesn’t mean it’s forever. I think people get a lot of comfort out of thinking that some of these major things can’t fundamentally be changed or taken away, and that the march of history is always a story of progress.

But the system that we have now was not inevitable, and it isn’t inevitable that it will continue. It depends on the choices people make to get organized and get active.

Often when it comes to democratic institutions, I feel like the only ones who really get that are the people who are trying to weaken them. And frankly, that’s why they’re winning. This is not a drill.

For a lengthy and fascinating break-down of redistricting and gerrymandering, check out this interactive piece — “How Maps Reshape American Politics“— by The New York Times.



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Katie Tandy

Katie Tandy

writer. maker. editor Former co-founder + The Establishment come for adjectives stay for justice