Gerrymandering

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
We wanted to do a story about Gerrymandering for years. Once you take it as a given, that we want to live in a representative democracy, the next question becomes, how are we best represented? We need to divide ourselves into groups, but on what basis should the lines be drawn? Basic geography is a place to start, but there are always exceptions and nuances that make defining voting districts solely along geographic boundaries problematic. I think of this as a design problem, maybe the most important design problem of democracy.

Roman Mars:
Our friends over at FiveThirtyEight recently dove deep into this topic with a six-part series that examines gerrymandering in different states around the country. It’s called “The Gerrymandering Project”. It turns out each state that they profiled is dealing with representation in Gerrymandering differently. The states are really acting as the laboratories of democracy that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis said they were. We’re going to spend the whole episode this week exploring that series and playing scenes from four different episodes about gerrymandering in four different states.

Roman Mars:
Our guide along the way will be the host of “The Gerrymandering Project” and producer at FiveThirtyEight – Galen Druke. Thank you for being here, Galen.

Galen Druke:
Hey Roman. Thanks for having me.

Roman Mars:
So this might seem like an obvious question, but just lay it out for us. What is gerrymandering?

Galen Druke:
Gerrymandering at its most basic is drawing district lines to achieve a specific goal. I think the most common form of gerrymandering that people are familiar with is partisan gerrymandering, which would be drawing lines in a way that advantaged one party over another. But you could also draw lines to protect incumbents, or you could racially gerrymander to dilute minorities’ voting power. So there’s more than one kind of gerrymandering, but at its core, it’s just manipulating lines with a goal in mind.

Roman Mars:
So implicit in the idea that a gerrymandered district is manipulated, is that there’s some natural way that a district should be drawn and that doesn’t seem like that’s… I mean, how do you really determine what the natural state of a district is?

Galen Druke:
Yes, you’re right. There is no redistricting plan that is blessed by the grace of God. You know, there are not rivers, streams, mountains and redistricting plans. Oftentimes people will just refer to something as gerrymandered when they don’t like the result or if it looks funny.

Roman Mars:
And who decides how districts get drawn generally?

Galen Druke:
For the most part, state legislators come up with maps that are then approved by state governors. And in some cases states have overhauled the process to give the power to an independent commission. But for the most part, it’s state governments. And the way that the party in control can achieve an advantage over the party out of control, is by packing and cracking their voters, which would mean in some instances putting a lot of that party’s voters in one district so as to make them waste a bunch of their votes. Because theoretically, any vote over 51% would be a wasted vote. It’s not helping to elect anybody. And then, on the other hand, you have cracking, which would be dividing up that party’s voters so that they can’t reach 51% in any one district, forcing them to waste votes in another way.

Roman Mars:
So in the FiveThirtyEight series, Galen looked at four different states that are either currently dealing with or have recently dealt with, the question of gerrymandering. And we’re going to hear a tape and talk a little bit about each of those states. We’ll start with Wisconsin.

Roman Mars:
So just a little background. In 2010 Wisconsin Republicans, won unified control of the state government. This was a particularly big deal because it happened to be a redistricting year. It was the first time in decades that a single party had total control of the state government as the state redrew its political maps, and the Republicans took full advantage. They drew maps that Democrats allege are very favorable to Republican candidates. This obviously didn’t sit well with the Democrats and they filed suit. Now for a long time anti-gerrymandering activists had been trying to find cases that they could bring before the Supreme Court to try and get a ruling that this kind of political manipulation is unconstitutional, that it violates either the First Amendment or the 14th Amendment, and one civil rights lawyer, in particular, a man named Peter Earl, started digging into the Wisconsin case and uncovering details. He found out that Republicans had drawn these maps in a secret office and that Republican lawmakers had signed secrecy agreements not to discuss the shape of the new districts. But Earl didn’t know the extent to which Republicans had gone to secure a partisan advantage. We’ll let Galen and take it from here.

Galen Druke:
Earl and his partner still didn’t have a full picture of how the maps were drawn, a detail that would be key to their case. So they continued to dig deeper and they noticed the email records from some people didn’t match the email records from the people they were communicating with.

Peter Earl:
And that raised suspicions and we began to demand more and more information, and the court finally ordered them to turn over the hard drive so we can forensically look at them.

Galen Druke:
So the attorneys hired a forensic examiner.

Peter Earl:
He was able to determine that hundreds of thousands of documents had been deleted with a wiping software prior to the hard drives being turned over to us.

Galen Druke:
But they were able to uncover the deleted documents including a number of spreadsheets.

Peter Earl:
And those spreadsheets are what really told the story. We were able to see every iteration of the map as they went from the baseline to the map that they finally adopted.

Galen Druke:
The map drawers used years of partisan voting data to design maps that strongly favored Republicans.

Peter Earl:
We found out that there was a professor by the name of Keith Gaddie from the University of Oklahoma who had been hired the Republicans to develop a very sophisticated multivariate regression analysis of partisan performance based on votes in the assembly districts from 2006, 2008, 2010. And they actually downloaded this proxy into the software that they were using to draw the maps.

Galen Druke:
So when the map drawers moved the lines on the software, they could see how it affected the partisan lean of the districts in real-time. The three Republicans who were responsible for drawing these maps declined to be interviewed on the record.

Peter Earl:
And then they kept upping the ante in terms of how many Republican seats they were guaranteed.

Galen Druke:
The map they ultimately came up with was designed to elect Republicans to 59 of the 99 assembly seats with just 49% of the vote, a strong majority with a minority of the statewide vote.

Peter Earl:
They had accounted for, in effect, the largest swings between Democratic turnout and Republican turnout during the preceding decade.

Galen Druke:
The plaintiffs are now presenting those spreadsheets to the Supreme Court as evidence that the Republicans set out to disadvantage Democrats.

Peter Earl:
The moment that we realized this, it was like a eureka moment and the rage, the anger that I felt, the outrage that these people would commit this level of a crime against the democratic process was just astounding. At that point, we decided we were going to do something about this.

Roman Mars:
I mean this sounds just completely pernicious and horrible. So what is the defense against this? Like what is the actual argument that can be made? Is this a smoking gun?

Galen Druke:
So the most blunt argument that Wisconsin Republicans will make is that partisan gerrymandering isn’t illegal. State legislators have been drawing maps that advantage one party over another for like, over a hundred years. And so they’re basically saying, this is a bit hypocritical, you know, why are Democrats all of a sudden outraged about partisan gerrymandering after they’ve been doing it for years themselves? Democrats in the case will respond and say, you know, “This is a civil rights issue, and it’s gotten so far out of hand that the Supreme Court does finally need to step in.”

Galen Druke:
And then the Republicans will say, “Okay, if the Supreme Court is going to step in, then you have to have a very clear standard of what is and is not fair in drawing maps.” And ultimately that’s a really, really difficult line to draw.

Roman Mars:
Right, because the judicial branch doesn’t really want to get involved with drawing every line on a map. I mean you could see why they’d be reticent to do this, that this is up to the legislature.

Galen Druke:
For sure. I mean, so for conservatives on the court who strongly believe that judicial overreach is a threat to our governmental system. Yes, that would be terrible if courts around the country were basically drawing maps that were supposed to be drawn by the state legislature. So if they are going to wade into this issue, they want to be able to have like a very clear standard for what is and is not fair and then get themselves back out of the process so that state legislatures can follow those guidelines. Anthony Kennedy has made it clear in the past that he does not like partisan gerrymandering. He’s reticent, however of wading into this for that exact reason. He doesn’t want courts across the country repeatedly getting involved in this issue and drawing maps that the legislature should be drawing.

Roman Mars:
And so where does the Wisconsin situation currently stand?

Galen Druke:
We are waiting for a decision. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last fall, and we will have a decision in this case by June. And you know, the decision, in this case, could be a pretty big deal if the Supreme Court sides with the Wisconsin Democrats, that could mean that there’s a whole lot more court cases following the same model saying that the maps in those States are illegal and need to be redrawn.

Roman Mars:
So Wisconsin is a pretty obvious example of partisan gerrymandering, but now we’re going to turn to North Carolina where legislators have drawn lines with race in mind. The voting rights act has been interpreted over the years to mean that states need to draw maps that don’t dilute minority voters and allow minority communities to elect candidates of their choice. In North Carolina, that meant in the early 1990s maps were drawn so that certain districts would favor African-American candidates.

Roman Mars:
It worked. North Carolina elected black representatives to the U.S. House for the first time since reconstruction. This was a huge success for the African-American community, but it was also good for another group, North Carolina Republicans. To understand why consider this, black North Carolinians overwhelmingly vote Democratic by packing these voters into a small number of districts where black candidates will likely win. The legislature also diminished black voting power in other districts around the state, allowing Republicans to dominate the overall political landscape of the state. Different people in North Carolina have very different opinions about this. And we’re going to play some tape now from the North Carolina episode of “The Gerrymandering Project” that illustrates the super complicated dynamic.

Derek Smith:
I have never personally been one that think that increasing the numbers of the black caucus in Congress, for example, necessarily equated to a plus for the African-American community.

Galen Druke:
Derek Smith, a political action chair for the state NAACP.

Derek Smith:
They can ensure that African-Americans get sent to legislative bodies and that looks good on election day when they can stand up and say, “Look. Look at what we did for you all. We help get Eva Clayton and Mel Watt into Congress in the 1990s.” But on the whole, the effect was that that was when the state began to shift towards a Republican-dominated caucus and that happened all throughout the South.

Galen Druke:
He’s in favor of African American voters influencing various districts.

Derek Smith:
I’ve always thought that African-American voices that are numerous and loud enough and active in many different places lend to the likelihood that policy decisions will consider African-Americans more than they do.

Galen Druke:
And white and black Democrats can form coalitions to elect minority candidates more easily than they were once able to in North Carolina. Smith points to a famous example.

Derek Smith:
President Obama is a classic example of that. If we can fuse together on common interests which affect the governance for the good of all, then it doesn’t matter your race.

Galen Druke:
Reggie Weaver of Common Cause tends to agree.

Reggie Weaver:
An argument has been made that yes, in justification of racially packed districts that minority candidates would not be elected any other way. There may be some truth that I don’t know. To me then, the answer isn’t to pack districts and weaken the minority voice in other areas.

Galen Druke:
He says that that won’t get at the root of the problem.

Reggie Weaver:
What I personally am more interested in is, you know, why is it that I, as an African-American man, am going to have a weaker chance in a purely competitive district just along partisan lines. You know, why is it? And I think that that gets to deeper questions that we are yet to resolve as a country about race.

Galen Druke:
But the idea that less emphasis should be put on race when drawing districts is not a universal one. Again, here’s Pam Stubbs who worked in Greensboro’s 12th District Office when it was first won by Mel Watt in 1993.

Pam Stubbs:
Until the playground is level in America, then we will always need our minority districts. And so far the playing ground is not level.

Galen Druke:
Stubbs, is unsure that African-American lawmakers will maintain their ranks if these districts are dismantled. And academic research suggests that that could cause some ripple effects. The presence of minority lawmakers can boost voter turnout among minorities. It can also increase their trust and engagement with politicians. One study done after Democrats began drawing down the black populations in minority districts in the 2000s showed that minority members of Congress are more likely to advocate for their communities’ priorities than white members of the same party.

Pam Stubbs:
You have to realize most of those minority districts were created after the 1990 census when there was hardly any minority representation across the country in Congress. So even though they’re safe now you have to understand why they were created.

Galen Druke:
Case in point – visit the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro.

Cassandra Williams:
My name is Cassandra Williams and I would to personally welcome you to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

Galen Druke:
When you arrive at the voting rights acts section of the museum there’s a striking installment.

Cassandra Williams:
Now when we look at this list of the wall here you see African-Americans elected to federal or statewide constitutional offices.

Galen Druke:
It’s a Florida ceiling list showing the date African American lawmakers were elected from each state.

Cassandra Williams:
Let’s look at North Carolina. In the years, right after the Civil War, during reconstruction, we see that there were four black men elected to represent the state of North Carolina in the house of representatives. But then we see about a hundred-year gap before Mrs. Eva Clayton was elected to represent North Carolina.

Galen Druke:
In state after state across the South, that houndred-year gap persistent.

Cassandra Williams:
We see that same gap in South Carolina. We see it in Alabama, Florida. We see 1871 and then another hundred-year gap is there. We can see it in Georgia, in Louisiana, from 1875 and then not until 1991.

Galen Druke:
In many states, that gap only ends in the early 1990s when states were forced to draw majority-black districts. So it’s easy to understand why the conversation about majority-minority district can be so contentious and emotional. If the law favors unpacking minority districts, it could become more difficult to ensure that African-Americans are elected at the same rates that they have been. For example, North Carolina state legislative map is currently being redrawn to unpack the majority-minority district. The chair of the legislative black caucus, Angela Bryant is likely to lose her seat in the redraw.

Angela Bryant:
I surely regret our losing my district and the coalition that had been formed in that district. I regret that. At the same time, the Gerrymandering was a burden.

Galen Druke:
She says it’s for the best.

Angela Bryant:
I’m convinced that even if people like me lose out to have a firm foundation upon which we are doing this redistricting, we will be better off over time.

Roman Mars:
I mean, this was the episode that most broke my brain, I think. I don’t know what it was like were you putting it together? But there was so many interests that have to be balanced and so many interests that I really support and want to have happen. It’s crazy how many values you have to juggle to draw these lines.

Galen Druke:
Yeah, and I mean this is really even just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all of the interests that you have to consider in drawing a district map. This is a really difficult conversation, especially for Democrats to have because on one hand they want to have the best shot at winning majorities that they can. On the other hand, if we are going to no longer have majority-minority districts, that might involve amending of the Voting Rights Act. And that’s a really difficult conversation for Democrats to have because as a platform, Democrats support enhancing the voting power of minorities.

Roman Mars:
So we’ve talked about this value of competitiveness and that brings us to the state of Arizona. And in 2011, they tried to get power to draw maps over to an independent commission. And a big part of their goal was to increase competitiveness and elections. Can you describe what the thinking was and why they create a commission to preference this particular value?

Galen Druke:
Yes. If you ask Americans, they love competitive elections. Of course, from there it gets a little more complicated. But in general competition is a thing that Americans value. Like what’s more American than competition. In 2000 Arizona through a ballot initiative, meaning that just Arizona is all across the state voted on this single item saying, do you want to create an independent commission to draw the state maps, take the power away from the state legislature, and Arizonans voted yes.

Galen Druke:
And so for the first time in 2001, an independent commission drew the maps and then for a second time in 2011 an independent commission also drew the maps. And in doing this the drafters of this ballot initiative had to basically say, “These are the criteria for drawing the maps that this independent commission has to follow.” And uniquely in Arizona, one of those criteria was competitiveness. In fact, it’s the only state in the country that requires an independent commission or even lawmakers for that matter to try to make districts competitive.

Roman Mars:
And by competitive you mean that depending on the candidate it’s, maybe, I don’t know equally likely that a Democrat or Republican you can be elected? I mean, how do you define competitiveness?

Galen Druke:
Yeah, I mean in the kind of wonky world of FiveThirtyEight we define competitiveness as within five points of the national average in a presidential election.

Roman Mars:
Oh, I see.

Galen Druke:
So basically a district where you would expect a close race.

Roman Mars:
Right. And so this got very controversial, very fast. Can you tell us what happened?

Galen Druke:
So at the time, in 2011, Republicans controlled both chambers of the state legislature and they were not all that interested in enhancing competition, because enhancing competition would mean probably a better chance that Democrats would take some of those seats away from them. Then on the other hand, of course, Democrats wanted competition. At the heart of this was one woman who was the Independent Chair of the commission. So the commission is five people, two Republicans, two Democrats and one Independent Chair who ends up being the tiebreaker. And if you listen to the episode, you can decide for yourself whether or not that’s a good system for creating an Independent Commission. Ultimately, this Independent Chair, Carlene Mathis, became the focal point of all of this disagreement between the two parties over how the district should be drawn and things actually got kind of scary for her to be honest.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so we’re going to play a little bit of the Arizona episode of “The Gerrymandering Project”, which deals with these maps that were drawn to increase competitiveness. And this scene starts in a public hearing about the map drawing company that the Independent Commission shows.

Carlene Mathis:
“Let’s all rise for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Audience:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.”

Carlene Mathis:
“I want to say right now, forgive me, I’m not going to use niceties, because I am so upset over this situation.”

Carlene Mathis:
The best way to describe it, I think is it was like a beehive. All kinds of people were there and the way they were looking at me, I could just tell they weren’t happy with me.

Galen Druke:
That’s Carlene Mathis. It was June 30th, 2011 and she was chairing a public hearing of Arizona’s independent redistricting commission. The group of citizens tasked with redrawing Arizona’s political boundaries.

Carlene Mathis:
It was a packed room. It was standing room only. My husband actually was there and he went and stood in the doorway. He was concerned, frankly for the safety of all of us, because it just seemed like a heightened level of intensity.

Galen Druke:
The commission had just decided which mapping company should draw Arizona’s new district lines, which are the boundaries that help determine who you vote for and Republicans weren’t happy.

Carlene Mathis:
“So slanted have your votes spin against Republicans that there is no question what the goal of this commission is. But what can we expect when the independent is not really an independent. She’s married to an activist Democrat.”

Carlene Mathis:
One after another, each of the people who filled out the request to speak forms came up and pretty much berated me mostly.

Carlene Mathis:
“There are many mapping companies out there – sorry, I am so upset – that you could have picked that are non-political. Why didn’t you? ”

Galen Druke:
The mapping company had done work for Democratic campaigns and Republicans blamed Mathis for choosing a biased company.

Republican 1:
After tending the last two meetings my feelings are that this is a predetermined process with one agenda. Remap Arizona to improve Democratic representation.

Republican 2:
What you saw after the mapping was appointed was a lot of pitchforks and torches here in Arizona, because I think the public really knew at that point that the mapping wasn’t going to be fair.

Carlene Mathis:
“You know, I thought this commission was supposed to be non-partisan. Dammit. You can’t get any more partisan than this.”

Carlene Mathis:
It was scary, frankly. A few weeks after the mapping consultant decision, a sitting state Senator had suggested, and then it got reported in the press that there was a target on me and that was scary.

Galen Druke:
He said, “The gun is loaded and it’s just figuring out what to point it at and when to pull the trigger.” According to “The Yellow Sheet Report”, a political newsletter in Arizona, Antenori told the press at the time that he uses military analogies because he was in the military and that he wasn’t targeting anyone.

Carlene Mathis:
When people talk about targets and guns, it’s not something to mess with.

Galen Druke:
Only six months earlier, Mathis’s congressional representative had been shot through the head at point-blank range.

Carlene Mathis:
I was in Tucson when it happened and anybody who was in Tucson remembers that day very well because it was a dark day.

Galen Druke:
During a constituent meeting at a grocery store in Tucson, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and 18 other people were shot. Six died.

Carlene Mathis:
That unfortunate awfulness occurred in January of 2011, and I was sworn in March of 2011, and so this was that summer, after that, and it’s hard to talk about it.

Galen Druke:
Mathis says she and her husband bought plywood at Home Depot and boarded up their bedroom windows.

Carlene Mathis:
And just ended up kind of making our bedroom at least a safe zone because we just felt kind of like, it’d be nice to be able to sleep at night, and not worry that somebody was looking in the windows and going to do anything.

Galen Druke:
They also went to the Department of Justice in Washington.

Carlene Mathis:
We talked to some folks at DOJ and they had an FBI person sit in.

Galen Druke:
Their safety concerns would continue for years to come. In 2012 with litigation’s still ongoing, their house was broken into. A year after that, the Commission’s Office was broken into, and the computers of all the commissioners were stolen.

Carlene Mathis:
We don’t know if it was related to redistricting, but that did occur.

Galen Druke:
Mathis says her mother told her to quit.

Carlene Mathis:
But I never was going to quit. I just knew that if you quit, you’re giving in to… That’s exactly what they want you to do.

Roman Mars:
Whoa. That is really intense. So what happened with these new competitive maps that were drawn in Arizona?

Galen Druke:
You know the story, it ends up being the most intense, I think redistricting process, probably the country has ever seen. The governor and legislature impeach Mathis. Then she gets reinstated. Ultimately they pass the maps, and they did end up enhancing competition in Arizona. During the 2016 election, there was one district in Arizona that voted for Hillary Clinton for president and voted for a Republican in the house. And there was another district that voted for Trump as president and voted for a Democrat in the house. That’s pretty rare in the United States these days, where we have a very polarized political environment and generally Democrats and Republicans don’t live together. So it’s very rare that we see those kinds of voting patterns. So yes, the districts that they set out to create as competitive districts do function as competitive districts. But of course, the path to getting there was a very acrimonious one.

Roman Mars:
And so, I mean, when you went there and did this story, I mean, what did you think of competitiveness as a value when it comes to drawing maps?

Galen Druke:
So it’s a complicated one when we look at American politics. Because we say we want competitive elections and in theory, competitive elections make lawmakers more accountable, right? If you’re basically guaranteed to win your primary when you’re general election, then you’re not that accountable. And if voters don’t have options, then do you really live in a representative democracy? At the same time, patterns in the ways that American voters have clustered make competitive districts really hard to achieve. Republicans and Democrats don’t live in similar areas, and less and less American voters switch back and forth between parties from one election to the next. And so you really have to kind of work at creating competitive districts.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So the last state you covered in “The Gerrymandering Project” is California. Like Arizona, they also started an independent commission to redraw districts, but they did it for a slightly different reason. Here’s a clip from that episode.

Galen Druke:
What caused California to create its commission did not have to do with the same old partisan type of gerrymandering.

Arnold Schwartzenegger:
It is much more to do with protecting the incumbents. The way they draw the district clients is to protect the incumbents.

Galen Druke:
That’s well, I’ll let him introduce himself.

Arnold Schwartzenegger:
I am Arnold Schwartzenegger and I was governor of the State of California from 2003 to 2011.

Galen Druke:
He backed redistricting reform as governor and has since continued to advocate for it.

Arnold Schwartzenegger:
I’m a big believer that we must terminate gerrymandering in America. When you look at the district lines the way they’re drawn, they make absolutely no sense to anyone, but it is all designed to keep Democrats separate from Republicans.

Galen Druke:
This strategy for drawing maps created an environment in which lawmakers felt entitled to groups of voters they saw as beneficial to them without much regard for existing communities or geography.

Kathay Feng:
In Los Angeles, for instance, Korea town was split into three or four districts. The Filipino-American community was split in two.

Galen Druke:
Kathay Feng is the National Redistricting Director of the nonpartisan group Common Cause. She’s also its Executive Director in California. During the 2001 round of redistricting, she testified to the legislature about how the lines should be drawn to keep Asian communities whole.

Kathay Feng:
As we traveled up and down the state, we were hearing these stories about people feeling for the first time, the importance of talking about their communities.

Galen Druke:
Feng says during the process she got a call from a Democratic assembly person.

Kathay Feng:
I had received a phone call from a legislator from San Francisco and it was my first time talking to an assembly person or a Senator and as a young attorney it was quite exciting to receive this phone call, and this person called me to essentially tell me, “Kathy, you’re not going to put another fucking Asian in my district.”

Galen Druke:
I asked her to identify the lawmaker.

Kathay Feng:
Carole Migden. She’s out of office now, so I guess I can say her name. It brought me to tears, because it was a realization that we still have a lot of racism in this country and even in a very blue state like California, people come to power with a sense of entitlement that allows them to make decisions about excluding people based on race in order to protect their own seats.

Galen Druke:
When reached for comment, Carole Migden said she did not recall the conversation. In the end, it was clear that the legislature was not interested in considering public testimony like Feng’s.

Kathay Feng:
What we found out was that after four months of public hearings, the legislature went behind closed doors and drew the lines that they had always intended to.

Galen Druke:
The California Senate passed the maps on September 12th, 2001, and the assembly passed them a day later.

Kathay Feng:
While the rest of the nation was rocking from this terrorist attack that had happened, and there was essentially a media blackout. Quite honestly, there was a real moment of reflection about whether or not our democracy is functioning.

Galen Druke:
Their incumbent protection plan was overwhelmingly successful.

Archival Tape:
The deal that was passed in 2001, made California’s map almost impervious to change. Only one incumbent lost reelection in a general election between 2002 and 2010.

Galen Druke:
California had insulated itself from the political volatility facing the rest of the country. Few of the races were even close.

Archival Tape:
You had 265 US house races in California. Only 14 of them were decided by less than 10 points.

Galen Druke:
Just 5% of California’s congressional elections were competitive.

Arnold Schwartzenegger:
I always say to note that the Soviet Police Bureau had more change over, than our system in California.

Roman Mars:
So what happened in California? Like how did they combat this problem of incumbency bias?

Galen Druke:
Californians in the period from the early 2000s to 2010, as you may remember in California, were very, very upset with the state legislature. I mean, at a certain point, I think their approval rating was at 10%. And so you had Governor Schwartzenegger and activists really agitating against the legislature. And so between Common Cause, the organization that Kathay Feng works with and other nonpartisan and partisan groups as well as the governor, they kind of got together and backed again, a ballot initiative like in Arizona to take the power of drawing these district maps away from the state legislature, and to give it to an independent commission.

Roman Mars:
And so what is the basis that the independent commission through their maps?

Galen Druke:
So whereas in Arizona we had, one of the criteria was competitiveness. That was not the case in California. One of the main criteria in California was to respect and empower communities of interest. And that relates to Kathay Feng’s experience with the Asian-American community in California. And the way that she saw them basically being disregarded in favor of incumbents’ own electoral priorities. And so what the independent commission did in California was it traveled around the state and listened to members of communities basically say… basically define their own communities of interest. And that could range anywhere from Koreatown to, one example is a group of people who has horses in L.A. or, one example was even like the soundproofing community around the LAX Airport in Los Angeles.

Roman Mars:
That’s interesting. And so how successful were they? What did these maps end up resulting in?

Galen Druke:
Yeah. So one of the complications with this way of mapping is that it’s hard to tell whether or not people are being sincere about what they consider as their communities of interest. Like political consultants came in and basically organized people around communities that may have been disingenuous in an attempt to influence the map-drawing process for partisan reasons. And so there is good reason to believe that they were successful in some cases. Ultimately though, I think California was pretty successful at appeasing both sides of the aisle and getting a relatively fair map. I mean if you look at different statistical analyses of the vote percentage compared with the seat share, California’s maps are pretty fair to Democrats and Republicans.

Roman Mars:
And so what are your takeaways from all this reporting you were steeped in this for months and months and months. What did you come away with?

Galen Druke:
Indeed I was. So if we look at the four different examples that we’ve just discussed, first, what you’ll realize is that all of these different priorities, so one being fairness between the two parties, two being fairness in representing minorities, three being competitiveness in elections and four being respectful of communities as they exist on a map, you’ll start to understand that these things do contradict each other. There are situations in which enhancing the opportunity for a minority candidate to get elected could put Republicans at an advantage electorally. So ultimately the people who draw maps have to make difficult value choices. Oftentimes the people who draw maps only care about partisan advantage, right? And so that’s basically the way that maps have been drawn for a long time. But if we’re going to reform the process, you still have to be awfully thoughtful about the values that you want to prioritize amongst those four things.

Roman Mars:
And which of these four States do you think is doing the best job of this?

Galen Druke:
If you look at California, that is the place where you will talk to both Republicans and Democrats who say that the mapping process overall was fair. And you know, there are obviously Democrats or Republicans who will disagree with that. But it was a rare example in the months that I spent reporting on this that you did come to some bipartisan agreement about the success of the results.

Roman Mars:
And is this a function of it being drawn by an independent commission? Is this what the success really points to?

Galen Druke:
You know, I think that’s part… oftentimes Americans distrust partisan legislators to put aside their partisanship in order to do what is “fair”. Obviously the people who wrote the ballot initiative in California looked at some of these examples in other states. There had already been a round of redistricting in Arizona. They had other states to look at as well. And think about where other states may have gone wrong and try to correct for that. You said that the American states are laboratories for democracy and a result of different States getting to try out, litigate, vote for, draw maps how they want to, is that we get to see the results of a whole bunch of different efforts. And I do think that the people in California were very thoughtful about the way that they wrote the law that guided this process.

Roman Mars:
So what do you expect will come out of the Wisconsin case?

Galen Druke:
Ugh. The million-dollar question. Honestly, I have no idea. But what I can tell you is this. If Wisconsin Democrats win this case, you will read in plenty of newspapers, “Supreme Court Ends Gerrymandering”, and I can tell you right now that will basically be a lie, because if the Wisconsin Democrats win, what it will actually do is start a very long process of determining what ultimately is fair when it comes to partisan advantage in drawing maps, right? I mean, unless the Supreme Court says, “You have to use this statistical model and it has to be within this percentage or blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” which I have no reason to believe that they would do, then it’s going to start a process of a lot of different lawsuits that litigate this in different ways that ultimately try to land on what is fair. And you know what? It could be that we never really land on anything. I mean that’s what’s happening with the voting rights act right now, is that we don’t have a strong conception of what is fair in how much to cluster minority voters together. Right?

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

Galen Druke:
That could end up happening with partisan gerrymandering. And you could say that’s all worth it and we need to have that debate. And, you know, we’re happy for all the lawyers that are going to be employed for the coming decades, off of all of these lawsuits, but it’s a conversation we need to have. But you know, even if the Wisconsin Democrats don’t win, I don’t think that the conversation about gerrymandering goes away because as we’re seeing, even now in Pennsylvania, there are a lot of different avenues to litigate this. And so no matter what the decision is in the Wisconsin Supreme Court case, I could promise you that this is going to be a conversation for years to come.

  1. Dan Jacobs

    The laws that cover redistricting are something I haven’t dove into, but either the Opening Arguments or Serious Inquiries Only podcast did some explaining. I was shocked to hear the one of the rules is that any redistricting must favor the incumbent.

    I know. I felt just like that too when I heard it.

  2. Josh

    I am disappointed by this podcast. I began listening over almost two years ago and was delighted to learn about the inventor of plastic, the evolution of the ranch home, McMansions, and even Ms. Manhattan. These were great episodes and I learned much from them. Now, for the past year, every episode is another political assault. I get it. You all dislike Republicans. Very much. If I want more politics I’ll go read the newsfeed on my phone. Can we please go back to the fun and quirky design episodes that make me delighted to look around my city for things I never thought to notice before?

    1. Josh

      Josh, I can’t remember every episode of this show recently and analyze it for bias. However, this episode, other than some short editorial comments that could be perceived to have bias, was mainly about reporting on the subject. A subject that many liberals know so little about and often assume will solve their problems, when in reality is a complex issue with trade-offs….

      Anyway, I actually came on here to comment on another thing.
      I really wish the hosts had made a bigger deal of the techno-utopian point of view that algorithms can save all problems. They missed an opportunity to make it clear that computers aren’t magic, they are tools which are just as flawed as the writers who make them. In an issue that is so political and deals with trade-offs like gerrymandering this should be even more clear. Hell the reason why Republicans have been able to be so efficient with their district lines is because they used algorithms for their purposes and not the public’s.

    2. Damon

      I agree. Politics are 100% in-your-face visible right now and exactly what I don’t want to hear more about in my favorite podcast.

    3. RANDAL

      I AGREE!!!! Also, it is pronounced with a hard “G”: named after Governor Elbridge Gerry (pronounced /ˈɡɛri/; 1744–1814)

  3. Doug

    I wish there was some discussion in there about proportional representation or different voting methods that could negate gerrymandering. But I guess that gets away from the point of the map design.

  4. Johannes

    i agree doug, here in germany we have our own problems with our voting system but at least it don’t have so much gerrymandering.

  5. Nils Breunese

    “We need to divide ourselves into groups (…)”

    Oh yeah, why? Just add up all the votes in the nation. That’s fair and that’s how we do it in The Netherlands and that works just fine.

  6. Eric Topp

    The first-past-the-post voting system in the USA (and many other representative democracies) contains a flaw: each representative has one vote in the assembly (House of Representatives, State Legislature, etc) that they are elected to regardless of the number of people who voted for them. Gerrymanders defeat the democratic principle of “one vote, one value” by drawing electoral boundaries such that voters in some electorates have more power than voters in other electorates. One solution would be for representatives to have the number of votes in the assembly equal to the number of people who voted for them.

    1. Jakob

      Indeed. There is another more fundamental design problem here – what kind of voting system is best? It is clear to me that a Scandinavian proportional system over very large bodies of voters is much more fair in terms of making each vote count. Does not matter where you live or how voting precincts are drawn. All that matters is the total number of votes for each party. It would also make life a lot easier to have for more parties, offering a more pluralistic political environment.

      In the US, that could at least be applied within each state for congressional elections with ease. Even simpler for the presidential election.

      This majority vote in fixed precincts is a really interesting and bad design point. Would be good to dig into why it happened in the first place – I think it comes from the UK?

  7. Sam Swordsout

    I had to stop listening right away when I realized that in a podcast about a subject in which there are decades worth of examples of hundreds, possibly thousands, of democrat abuses, they choose the one example of republicans doing it. The bias is so loud it’s deafening.

    1. 99pi

      If you listen on: there are actually four different examples of different types in different states.

  8. Trevor M

    In Australia the boundary drawing has been removed from the politicians for a long time. Thank God.

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