Political consultants everywhere, on the national and state levels, are licking their chops at the prospect of slamming shut the backroom doors after the 2020 election and getting to work dividing up voters in order to give their parties an unfair advantage. They’re plotting to rig the legislative maps that determine which voters will vote for which politicians, enabling a stranglehold on the laws that get passed over the next decade’s worth of elections. That’s right—with the census on its way and an election year ending in zero, gerrymandering season is upon us once again.
But will this decade be different? Have Americans finally reached the breaking point where they aren’t going to take it anymore? The groundswell of action leading to good-governance reforms around the country has led me to believe that change is on the way.
After the election in 2016, I made a Facebook post saying I wanted to take on gerrymandering in my home state of Michigan and asking if anyone would like to join me. That spark was all it took to channel the frustration of thousands of my fellow Michiganders, whose herculean efforts eventually led to the amending of our state constitution to create an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. A new documentary about the corrosive effects of partisan gerrymandering clearly shows that our frustration was not unique.
Slay the Dragon, a critically acclaimed documentary set to be released on April 3, highlights our story in Michigan, as well as the epic Wisconsin legal case that wound up in the highest court in the land. The film points out just how extreme partisan gerrymandering has become in recent years due to advances in technology and the ability of political consultants to pinpoint data on voters so they can accurately predict which way they’ll cast their ballots. It takes a deep dive into Project REDMAP, a comprehensive multi-state strategy employed by the Republican Party in order to control the once-a-decade process of drawing district lines. In doing so, the film documents the aha moment that voters of all political stripes had after the plan was successful beyond the architects’ wildest dreams and voters’ ability to hold their elected officials accountable in gerrymandered states was drastically diminished.
Although Slay the Dragon shines a light on the stories of Michigan and Wisconsin, it turns out that similar aha moments were taking place all over the country, with redistricting reforms being passed in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah in 2018. Additional court cases were filed in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Maine, arguing that districts were drawn with the specific intent to gerrymander.
That wave of anti-gerrymandering activism has led to a second wave across the country with voters frantically trying to fight back in their own states before the new election lines are drawn in 2021. Whether it’s trying to change who’s drawing the lines, the criteria for how the lines are drawn, or the process followed in drawing them, there are a number of ways any given state can redesign its redistricting process to create districts that represent the interests of voters rather than those of partisan politicians.
Time is of the essence, and those entrenched interests currently controlling how the lines are drawn won’t give up their power easily. Why would they when they can bake-in an advantage that makes winning elections and passing their political agendas easier and less expensive, with little to no political ramifications?
So it comes back to us: the voters. As we learned in our grassroots campaign in Michigan, the reality is that no one else is going to come along and willingly create a fair process. If we want one, we the voters have to make it happen ourselves. We the people of this country have the opportunity—and I would assert, the responsibility—to create a process that actually puts voters first.
The exciting news is that across our country there are opportunities in nearly every state for voters to pick up their civic-duty swords and become gerrymander-slayers themselves. Between now and 2021 there are citizen-led ballot initiatives, proposed legislation that can be passed by state legislatures, and key 2020 candidate elections that will have massive implications on how the new maps will be drawn. Below are just a few of the efforts taking place around the country right now:
Key 2020 anti-gerrymandering ballot proposals
The Virginia legislature just passed an amendment to their state constitution championed by One Virginia 2021 to curb gerrymandering, placing it on the ballot this November for final approval. Other states that need to collect tens of thousands of signatures by this summer to put their initiatives before their voters include: Arkansas (Arkansas Voters First), Nebraska (Nebraskans for Independent Redistricting), Nevada (Fair Maps Nevada), North Dakota (North Dakota Voters First), Oklahoma (People Not Politicians OK), and Oregon (People Not Politicians OR).
Key 2020 legislation and candidate races that will determine who draws the lines
Pivotal legislation is currently pending in Maryland and New Hampshire taking on the issue of partisan gerrymandering that could use support with lobbying efforts. When voting for governors and state legislators in states where politicians choose their voters, consider learning about and prioritizing their stance on redistricting. Upcoming gubernatorial races in states where politicians draw the lines will occur this year in DE, IN, NH, NC, ND, VT, and WV.
With the release of Slay the Dragon we have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to amplify the threat of gerrymandering, build capacity to fight back against special interests, and take back our democracy. That’s why I’m proud to support Participant and Magnolia Pictures on their “Slay the Dragon” campaign to increase awareness around this issue and get even more citizens engaged in the redistricting process, especially in Michigan. Together, we’re ensuring communities across the country are working toward fair maps and, where possible, voters are signing up to be on non-partisan, independent redistricting commissions that allow for ordinary citizens (like us) rather than politicians to draw electoral lines.
There’s a crack in one of our democratic republic’s most basic building blocks: the process of determining who will be our representatives. You can support initiatives and anti-gerrymandering candidates by volunteering for, donating, and voting for their campaigns. The most important thing is to do something—anything—to take on this issue. Sitting on the sidelines and hoping for the best is not an option while our democracy is at risk. The people of Michigan and other states proved that we can make a difference when we exercise our inherent power to make change. Let’s build on that success. We are the people. This is our power.
Katie Fahey is Executive Director of The People, a nascent nonprofit that gathers and empowers everyday Americans to find common ground and take action together to create a government that is responsive and accountable to all its people (follow on Twitter at @ThePeopleOrg). Katie is featured in the upcoming documentary Slay the Dragon coming to video-on-demand April 3.