Fixing Bugs in Democracy: Gerrymandering

Wednesday, Apr 22, 2020
by Benjamin Gelman ’22, Pace Center Student Correspondent

Author David Daley has spent years raising the alarm about partisan gerrymandering and its threat to democracy. In his first book, he explored how high level Republican operatives sought to use the U.S. redistricting process to advantage their party in state and federal elections. Now he's exploring how we can fight for change in his new book, "Unrigged: How Americans are Battling Back to Save Democracy." He recently spoke to Princeton University Professors Sam Wang and Julian Zelizer about how fair redistricting is the key to any real political change and what you can and should do about it. 

This conversation was the third in the Fixing Bugs in Democracy series, a set of virtual town halls targeting problems in our democracy and how to fix them, sponsored by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Pace Center, Service Focus, and Princeton University Public Lectures.

Daley began with a brief history of gerrymandering, the practice by which politicians in power draw districts in a way that increases their chances of reelection, which can often disenfranchise voters of the opposite party. According to Daley, it has long been a tool of both parties to protect their incumbents. However, he qualified his statement by saying that the Republican efforts to gerrymander districts since 2010 represent a major evolution in gerrymandering tactics, or the “gerrymandering on steroids era” as he called it. 

“This matches up with the era where the technology becomes precise and exacting,” he said. “The data becomes available, and they’re able to draw these lines in such a way that mapmakers weren’t able to in the 2000’s.”

Daley also mentioned that in our modern era of polarization, gerrymandering can be more effective, because “a 54, 55 percent majority district in this level of polarization is not as vulnerable a seat as it used to be.”

As for what motivated the Republican effort, Daley cited the fact that after their defeat in the election of 2008, Republicans realized that they had massive demographic challenges with women, young voters, black voters, etc. and that to stave off future electoral losses they turned to accelerated gerrymandering.

“They thought they could buy themselves a decade, and hold back these demographic waves for a few years while the party increased its appeal among women, minorities, and young voters,” he said. “What backfired on them, and created a Frankenstein's monster that they were not expecting, was that drawing districts this way put the base in charge in such a way that they kind of outreach was impossible.”

Professor Wang added that this tactic makes representatives unresponsive to voters, and that “takes more and more extreme measures to keep your head above water” if this is a chief re-election strategy. Wang also pointed out that Daley’s first book details these efforts to damage American democracy, yet the second one is “a bit more hopeful.”

Daley agreed, saying that “I had a dark rain cloud over my head talking about all the degradations of democracy. I needed for my own sake … to give people some hope and some optimism trying to tell stories of hope and fighting back … to go out and be able to travel around the country with these groups who logged off twitter and turned off cable news was inspiring.”

Daley discussed how he traveled with organizations in Idaho and Florida working on expanding Medicaid and felons’ voting rights, respectively. “The passion that was unleashed in this country that I think we saw especially in the 2018 election was this citizens movement that was non-partisan,” he said. “You don't win Medicaid expansion in Idaho with 60 percent of the vote … unless you are doing the work of persuading people who maybe are not automatically on your side.”

Professor Zelizer then asked about what factors motivate people to “get out of their house and talk about structural reform?” Daley replied that he thinks there is greater awareness of structural issues among average Americans that many might think, and that voters respond to politicians addressing these issues.

The discussion continued with all three participants stressing that gerrymandering promotes extreme agendas, as citizens cannot do anything to control their representatives. Daley cited the examples of the Flint water crisis, the restrictions of voting rights through voter I.D. laws and similar measures, and the recent decision to not postopine the Wisconsin election despite the ongoing pandemic as extreme decisions made by representatives elected through gerrymandered districts.

Daley also spoke about how discussing these issues can become partisan very quickly, and that it is important to frame the debate as a matter of fair representation, not partisan policy achievement, in order to build opposition against gerrymandering.

“What has happened is when these elections are beyond the reach of the people, representatives can take actions that place them further beyond the reach of people” he said. Daley said that ending gerrymandering is crucial to stopping this vicious cycle.

On whether 2018 victories meant that the tide was turning, Daley said that “the history of voting rights in this country is not a straight line toward progress … it is a story of progress, of entrenchment, sometimes both at once.” Daley also cited the famous quotation of Dr. King, saying “The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but it doesn't bend toward justice on itself, you have to grab it. What happened in 2018 was people grabbed it.”

Visit the Princeton Election Consortium for a video of Daley’s talk and prior Fixing Bugs in Democracy virtual town halls.