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How Gerrymandering Efforts Fit Into 2020 Presidential Election

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

By now, you're no doubt painfully aware of how slow the process of counting votes was in some states after last Tuesday's election, even votes that had been sent in weeks before. And you're probably also aware of something called gerrymandering. That's the practice of drawing electoral district lines, sometimes in absurd shapes, in a manner designed not to benefit voters but to benefit the politicians of one party or another.

So what do those two things have in common? A lot, says Katie Fahey. She is the executive director of a group called The People, and she successfully led an effort in her home state of Michigan to create a bipartisan redistricting commission led by citizens rather than officials. Her group also worked on a similar measure that was approved by voters in Virginia last week. And Katie Fahey is with us now.

Katie, thanks so much for joining us.

KATIE FAHEY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So could you just start simple for people who may be a long way away from their last civics class? How does redistricting work? And why do you say it's gotten completely distorted? I mean, you sometimes hear activists say voters are supposed to pick their officials, not the other way around. So what do you say has gone off the rails with this process?

FAHEY: So once every 10 years, after we complete the census, we end up redrawing our election maps for who your state representatives will be and who your federal congressional members will be. In most states, that line-drawing process is actually done by the people in office, so by politicians. They are literally going through communities and drawing these lines to figure out which voters do they want in their district and which ones don't they want.

And gerrymandering is this process of instead of really looking at, how do we make sure that these election maps actually represent communities that then can be represented in state capitals and in Washington, D.C., it's more focused on, how can we guarantee that even if less voters want us to be winning, we can make sure our party stays in power? How can we move around each voter to make sure as many voters as we can that we want to vote the ways for us stay in our district?

And that last redistricting cycle happened in 2010. Any election year ending in zero because it's a census year are the years that redistricting happened, which is what has made 2020 so extra-important - because it will have implications between now and 2030. But in 2010, a lot of sophisticated computer data and information was used in state legislatures across the country to figure out, how do we make sure our party can maintain control in this state for the next 10 years?

MARTIN: And I do want to point out that this is something that has - both parties have been accused of this, and both parties have been successfully litigated against. I mean, in North Carolina, it was Republicans who were drawing district maps in such a way that advantage them, you know, far beyond what their numbers should have indicated. In Maryland, it was the opposite. It was Democrats who were drawing lines to advantage themselves.

I want to just be clear that both parties have been accused of this, and both parties have been successfully sued because of this. But in recent years, I mean, isn't it fair to say that it's mainly Republicans who have succeeded in drawing district lines to advantage themselves? Would that be accurate?

FAHEY: Yes. Republicans had a brilliant political strategy in 2010 called Project Red Map, where they tried to figure out what were the key congressional races or state House and state Senate races or governorships if they won in 2010 would make sure that the people drawing the lines and getting to make those decisions on what are these maps going to look like for the next 10 years would be Republicans.

So they overspent a lot of money in some races that normally wouldn't get a lot of money spent in them. They were able to then secure those legislators, and then those legislators drew gerrymandered maps that then have allowed them to not only just get reelected, but there was a full strategy to then take out conservative legislation - kind of take the same bill across all the states they were able to gerrymander and then push them into the legislature.

So when people were starting to see all of these voter ID laws or some of the bathroom bills, and people were kind of confused saying, you know, why are these popping up in all these states, it actually was related to a long-thought-about strategy around redistricting and maintaining that control and then pushing an agenda.

MARTIN: So how do you relate this to the current moment? I mean, how, in your view, does - did past gerrymandering efforts affect the election results that are still being counted and are certainly being litigated in some places?

FAHEY: Well, in certain states like Michigan, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin - some of the states we've heard a lot about - also Pennsylvania, the redistricting done in 2010 was done really well. And the state legislatures for 10 years, even though we've had wave elections for both parties, have stuck. And a lot of those legislators were some of the ones not allowing states to become more proactive in being ready for a lot of mail-in ballots.

I know in Michigan, where I live, there was a lot of contention between the secretary of state and our elected officials around, how do we best prepare for this election? And you also saw a bit of that in Pennsylvania.

So from the actual election structure we have, gerrymandering has impacted it. Our election cycle - or our election process, I should say, unfortunately for decades has continued to be eroded by partisan interests - and Democrats and Republicans both - instead of being worried on how do we deliver the best results for the people that we are representing are more worried about, how do I make sure I can get reelected, and how can I make sure my party gets reelected?

And when the focus is on that, and you're changing the rules of how elections are run, then the way that those elections are run start to benefit more political parties and individual candidates rather than us, the voters - the people who should be deciding our elections.

MARTIN: Forgive me, but, you know, I'm sure some people are listening to our conversation who would think, well, that's just diabolical. I mean, like, who would be thinking that far ahead? I just think some people might have a hard time believing it. It just sounds like - because it's clear - I mean, the president has been trying to discredit mail-in balloting, absentee voting for months now.

But presumably other people feel - are more concerned about, say, the health of their constituents or the - you know, the - just being fair to everybody or just - you know what I'm saying? I just think...

FAHEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is it hard to...

FAHEY: It is. I think it is really hard to think about that. And one of the things that I didn't even realize how big it was until I started trying to actually change the system was how big the political industry is. We just had $14 billion spent in this election. And even though our elected officials change out every so often, a lot of the political strategists have been here for decades.

The people who've gerrymandered Michigan for the last 30 years are the same 10 people. It's not actually the legislators who are the ones who are drawing these maps. They're working with lobbyists that are paid from the party. And the party says, you know, if you really want to enact this thing for your constituents, maybe you really do want to make sure that Flint has clean water, well, you know, the only way we're going to let you do that is if you fall in line because they want to make sure that they can continue to win.

I think people think their agenda, their way of thinking about the world, is what's, quote-unquote "best for everybody," and so maybe they justify it that way. But honestly, it's not. We live in a democratic republic where the people are supposed to be deciding that. I actually think that's one of the most important reasons for all of us to care about redistricting - because a lot of people like saying we live in communities that are only red or blue, but we don't.

We live in communities, our neighbors could be Democrats, Republicans, independents, people who vote, people who don't vote. But we all care about our local community - our water, our schools, our safety, our ability to make a livelihood. And that is the last thing politicians are thinking about when they're drawing these lines.

MARTIN: That was Katie Fahey, executive director of The People, which works to address extreme partisan gerrymandering across the country.

Katie Fahey, thanks so much for joining us.

FAHEY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.