Why States Matter: Gerrymandering

With Slay The Dragon, a documentary about gerrymandering directed by Barak Goodman and Chris Durance, gaining national renown at the Tribeca Film Festival, Sister District looks back at a ‘fireside chat’ between Sister District Action Network Director of Research Gaby Goldstein and David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count. Watch the full video here, or read an excerpt below from David himself. Full transcripts are available on our Medium blog:



In David Daley’s words:

Democrats have overlooked state legislatures for too long, and the Republicans realized that that was a loophole. It was the perfect bargain — in a gridlocked Washington, DC, where nothing could get done, if the Republicans were able to spend a little bit of money and focus down-ballot they would be able to do two things:

  1. Advance a very conservative agenda within states where it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. They knew they’d be able to pass all of this legislation completely insulated from the ballot box and the voters.
  2. They understood that state legislatures is where the power lies to draw district lines for Congress, and if they could take control of those state legislatures in 2010 they would be able to draw themselves a lasting and durable majority in those states and in Congress that could last at least a decade and possibly longer.

The very first thing that the gerrymandered state legislatures do before all of this other legislation is they go after voting rights. They pass voter ID bills. They limit the number of days of absentee balloting or early voting or do things to surgically and precisely target the votes of minorities and Democrats. So if you don’t have power in state legislatures, you don’t have a seat at the table for all of these policy fights in your state, and if you lose that power in a redistricting year you might not get that seat back for another decade.

District lines not just for state legislative districts but also congressional districts are drawn by the state legislature. Gerrymandering is the dark and ancient art of drawing district lines in such a way as to maximize the power of the party holding the pen and to minimize or dilute the power of your opponent’s party.

Essentially packing means when you draw the map you try to corral as many of the other side’s voters into as few districts as you possibly can, districts that they then win with an overwhelming amount of votes, but it leaves all of the surrounding districts free for your side. The other way is by cracking, and then you are essentially spreading those votes out as thinly as you can so that it is just incredibly hard for them to ever be able to coalesce around a representative of their own choosing.

This is not what people sign-up for in a representative democracy. It dilutes the power of your vote, and it warps the very nature of representation. And so not only does this sort of gerrymandering dilute the voices of Democratic voters, but it also makes Congress more extreme.

When districts are not competitive, members of Congress just don’t have any incentive to compromise, to govern, to deal with the other side, because the backlash there would be someone even more to the right challenging them in an upcoming primary, and you make the point that most of the country really is in the middle. But when you draw the lines in such a way to pack and crack, the middle gets left behind. The middle has no voice because of this sort of mathematical partisanship.