The Reluctant Activist
I left the Denver strip mall campaign office that Tuesday afternoon in 2008 with the kind of smile on my face that people want to slap off. Dropped the rental at DEN, and hopped on the plane back to SFO. It was a warm night in the city. The cab windows were down, and as we bounced along, I started to make out sounds—like the 49ers had scored a touchdown, but more sustained and widespread. The cab groaned up the hill to my house and came to an abrupt stop. I ran up the stairs, and before I could drop my suitcase, my wife shouted, “They’re calling it for Obama!” Music swells and the credits roll.
Thus ended my great activist stint of damn near a week. And through the next eight years, I returned, as many did, to the standard of signing email petitions and writing the occasional check. “Hey, I won Colorado for Obama,” I’d respond when asked if I would rise again to defend a defenseless populace in 2016. Besides, Bernie was up to his glasses in volunteers and Hillary didn’t really need any help. Her team had control of her well-financed barge as it slowly navigated the Potomac, careful to avoid deplorable country, inching toward a town and home she knew well.
OK, so we all know what happened. Rot, Russkies and deplorables sank the barge and left us with Trump, who set a clear course backward, thereby doing one of his executive orders on all my Colorado door knocks.
I had heard Obama and Eric Holder were going to do a project together after they left office. Obama spoke about it during a State of the Union speech I did not volunteer to watch. They were going to focus on gerrymandering. It made perfect sense. Everyone said Obama plays the long game. He looked and saw the smart play was to try to end the extremism and other ills in the country by recreating more moderate representatives from both parties to improve the velocity and scope of progress that could be made. Who better than Holder, Obama’s former attorney general, knew that the wheels of justice turn slowly, except, perhaps, for some folks in Guantanamo? Plus, Obama and Holder are bright guys who probably spent considerable time thinking this through.
With Trump in office, impeachment seemed a lost cause. If the “Grabber” tape didn’t keep him out, it was difficult to believe anything would inspire a Republican majority to vote him out. And all this led right back to the core problem Obama and Holder identified with their gerrymandering project: If you win 60 percent of the overall vote in a state, you should not have a minority of the seats.
It made sense for me, too. In fact, this was even better than 2008: I could do some research on gerrymandering without getting off the couch, writing a check or taking a survey.
Turns out gerrymandering is quite sinister, anti-democratic at its core and done in the darkness of a small conference room—the quintessential backroom deal, but not a deal, because the other guys aren’t even in the room. Robbing people of the power of their vote is the nitty-gritty of politics that is never sent up on an SNL sketch.
To Begin With
For those starting on the first floor, gerrymandering is akin to this concept: “First you throw the dart. Then you draw the circle.” In other words, you fit the voting district to match the candidate, thereby guaranteeing that he or she—or someone like them—will continue to appeal to that group, ensuring a long reign in whatever political body they are in. This explained quite a bit for me. For years I had heard that progressive change would come to the U.S. naturally and relatively soon, because demographic changes would eliminate the stranglehold Republicans had on regional elections.
But after the 2010 Census, it became clear that Obama and any large “d” or small “d” democratically elected president was going to continue to feel quite lonely in their branch in D.C. until Democrats got serious about the takeover of district politics by the GOP. You’ll recall many of the chattering class talking about Obama as an inspired leader, but not at the party level, because the Democrats lost so many house and statehouse seats to Republicans who reconfigured districts after the 2010 Census.
Turns out Republicans had taken the notion of the coming demographic shift to heart. They just didn’t react to it like Democrats and go on listening tours. They said, “How can we win without all that touchy-feely crap?” After the Census, they threw their darts and redrew their districts around their white male candidates. Can’t move the people, but you can move the lines. Why bother being more open to the new America when you can use enhanced mapping programs to find the last vestiges of old America and turn those pockets into ever-lovin’, everlastin’ GOP districts? And at the same time corral the new Americans into their own larger districts, thereby negating their growth. Segregation worked for keeping schools white. Why wouldn’t it work for keeping our districts white as well?
There are a number of ways to go about it. You can “crack” a district, to reduce that district’s importance. You can “pack” a district, to ensure it has a higher than normal preponderance of the folks you want. For a history on gerrymandering, head to ProPublica for interesting tidbits. An example: The word “gerrymandering” dates to 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry was accused of stacking his districts. A cartoon in The Boston Globe made the district look something like a salamander, and bang, “gerrymandering” emerged as the word to define jiggering districts for political gain. The Globe story also explains that it’s pronounced like “Gary,” not “Jerry.” Let’s recall that in 1812, there was none of the sophisticated technology in use today to carve out a victory. Today, this sleazy form of subverting our democracy has benefited from technology, just like more legitimate endeavors. Below is a map of Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District today. Look accidental?
The image above is well known in gerrymandering circles as “Donald kicking Goofy,” but don’t tell Disney that.
The Washington Post provides additional detail on the how-to of gerrymandering, if that is what you’re really interested in. Didn’t want this to be one of those here’s-how-to-build-a-bomb stories, but let’s face it: The GOP is just getting better at it.
So now your Reluctant Activist is learning why this is really such a sinister problem for a democracy. It’s easy for the party in power to do and hard to prove (so they claimed). It’s been under the radar (meaning I didn’t know about it). And once you get it done, it lasts for a decade. A lot of bad ju ju can happen to a country in a decade. So it is pretty easy to see why Obama and Holder said, “Let’s get beyond personalities and clean up the mess that is state and regional politics at its core—the district.” Republicans “got their country back” by redrawing the lines in 2010 (click here for a deeper dive on how this is Obama’s fault, or pick up a copy of “Ratf**ked” to go even deeper). Now it’s time to take our elections back.
I decided to take a look at where gerrymandering is an issue and who the players are, but for the record, I have yet to knock on a door, go to a rally, sign a petition or write a check, so this working-against-gerrymandering thing is still a walk in the park and highly recommended for aspiring Reluctant Activists.
Back to the search machine, and who pops up but Common Cause. OK, show of hands of people who have not heard anyone mention Common Cause in the last decade. Yes, just like the old kid shows on TV, I can see you out there. As expected, no hands.
Well, this makes sense. To undo Karl Rove’s 2010 shenanigans, one needs to lawyer up and head to the courts. Court battles require lawyers. Only well-established groups are going to have a team of lawyers that can fight well-funded Republicans who are trying to keep their skullduggery behind closed doors. And sure enough, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters are fighting a gerrymandering case in North Carolina—Common Cause v. Rucho and League of Women Voters v. Rucho. Wait, what? League of Women Voters? Honestly, I thought they just put up yard signs and made sure the voting place had pencils and stuff. I had no idea they were raising money and getting things done. Clearly, this is written by another in a series of ill-informed men. My apologies in advance.
So, in North Carolina there is a multi-year ping-pong match going on between the legislative Republican majority and the judiciary. The Republicans are rewriting the maps after a lower court ruled that maps from 2011 were drawn racially, intending to mitigate the voting power of blacks in the state. And don’t forget, these maps were brought to you by the same good ol’ boys that in 2016 passed what was called when it was overturned by a three-judge panel “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.” For more on that ugliness from the Tar Heel State, check this great piece by William Wan of The Washington Post. Not to get off topic, but the reason North Carolina started going after “voter fraud” was because Republicans gained control of the statehouse in 2010 for the first time since 1898. Clearly, they dusted off their 1899 agenda and had at it.
Then there is a case you never hear about, because the Dems stacked the deck in this one. Seven Republican voters have gone after the districts mapped by the Democrat-controlled Maryland General Assembly after the 2010 census. Clearly, this redistricting is a political “precious” that all politicians should be kept from. And it will be returning to the Supreme Court for the second time on a First Amendment rights basis.
Meanwhile, a gerrymandering case in Wisconsin, Gill v. Whitford, has made it to the Supreme Court, which will rule this summer. As Joe Biden would say, this is a big f-ing deal. Makes you wonder which way Mitch McConnell’s Supreme Court pick will go.
What studies are showing is that gerrymanders have become the cockroaches of democracy. Because of enhanced mapping technologies and a less mobile electorate, gerrymanders can survive multiple election and redrawing cycles. The situation is only getting worse, and despite prior reluctance by the courts to get involved, they have come to realize they must. If they do not, First Amendment rights repression will continue. And as a result, in Congress we see the death of the moderate in either party, and this becomes a spiral as it begins to affect fundraising as well.
The tribalism of the parties will continue to worsen. It is so much easier to throw rocks when you know your power is entrenched. This calcified Congress (97 percent of incumbents were victorious in 2016 election) has the same effect on the citizenry, which also becomes more extreme.
Our system was designed to be based on an informed electorate choosing a representative that they feel will best represent them, not the other way around. Redistricting, this wonky activity, is turning our democracy upside down.
Sorry for getting all “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” on you there. I am, after all, still a card-carrying Reluctant Activist. But the more I learn, the worse the taste I’m getting in my mouth, and I still don’t see how a great rising of other Reluctant Activists gets Obama and Holder anywhere in this. This is all about elites in black robes at this point, or other lawyers.
So Where Do I Come In?
Like all solid Reluctant Activists, I did what we do best: waited for a sign. It came, as I suspected it would, in my inbox. My old boss Barack beckoned me to sign up for his National Democratic Redistricting Committee. And then—so quick you hardly could imagine it was humanly possible—I got a “thank you” email for signing up. Then another email, which I expected would surely be asking me to don my running shoes, grab my pitchfork and leap into action, hunting for the gerrymanderers at night in the swamp with flashlights. Instead, to my dismay, that email asked me to “like” the new group on Facebook and follow on Twitter.
OK, now I’m beginning to feel the slightest tinge that perhaps we are just not going to go at this in some mass march sort of way. When lawyers are leading the pack, just what are the masses that follow behind supposed to do? Make sure their limos are at the courthouse on time? Freshen up their Starbucks order? Book them onto Chris Hayes?
Well, the next email was a request to host a training session. Perhaps they were unaware of my prior service, walking block after block in the suburbs of Denver. I really was, what’s the word—reluctant—to host a training session. Do they really think people need to be trained on how to write a check?
Besides, I had spent quite a bit of time training myself, studying the relevant cases. Surely some loftier instructions would soon be forthcoming. Then the email from Holder arrived. I opened it with all the reverence a soon-to-be no-longer-reluctant activist could muster. “Donate $5 and become a charter member of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.”
Well, that was the moment I knew I would not be coming home some warm evening, climbing a hill in a non-rattling Uber, exclaiming to my friends and relations how I had helped slay the wicked gerrymander back at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
The emails kept coming, some asking me to take more quizzes, others asking for more small bills. Mostly they went unopened. They can hit up Soros for that.
But my research made me realize that this is important work. In fact, doing battle to keep districts fair is even more important than working for an individual, no matter how charismatic. Executive orders are woefully transitory. Making districts fair is at the core of our democracy and allows the country to be changed by direct will of the people. Democracy is not about an individual nominee, or even a self-absorbed volunteer.
Please do whatever you can to make sure every vote counts. The fight must go on.
As for me, well, I don’t have what it takes to get into the League of Women Voters, so next stop, Common Cause.