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Those Crazy Lines

Thursday, April 20, 2017

By Steve Cohen, Bay Area Democracy Funders

As we look ahead to elections of all levels in 2020, redistricting has become a major focus for political activism because it will set the stage for legislative decisions at all levels of government for the next decade. Below, Bay Area Democracy Funders' Steve Cohen, writes about "gerrymandering" and the role funders could play. You can join us to learn even more on this topic June 7th at Drawing Electoral Lines: Making Redistricting Work for All.  REGISTER > 


Leave it to John Oliver to humorously straighten out the twisted world of gerrymandering.

“Everyone’s voice should count,” Oliver declared at the end of his Last Week Tonight show on April 9. “Everyone should have an equal chance to make a bad decision that [forks] it up for everyone else. Election results should not be the result of these crazy lines; they should be the result of our own crazy decisions.”

Those crazy lines appear when states redraw their legislative and congressional districts every 10 years, based on new U.S. Census data. Redistricting or gerrymandering has become a political bludgeon wielded by whichever party is in power.

One of many examples from the show: In 2016, about 40 percent of Ohio voters chose Democrats for the House of Representatives, but 12 of the state’s 16 seats are represented by Republicans.

“Those numbers are way out of proportion to what people should expect,” joked Oliver. “You wouldn’t accept Neapolitan ice cream that was 75 percent strawberry.”

Nationally in 2012, Democrats got 1.1 million more votes, but Republicans sent 33 more members to the House of Representatives mostly because of the maps they drew

“That’s like if Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs had to use Tim Burton,” joked Oliver. “It’s not technically impossible to win but it’s going to be much, much harder.”

It’s no joke to our political parties. A primary reason for the 2012 Red Wave election was that Republicans invested heavily in 2010 to win the state houses that control the congressional maps. Independent and Democrats are trying to play catch up for 2020. Two news PACS in the game are led by former California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former United States Attorney general, Eric Holder

While both parties build huge war chests to swing state legislatures their way, charitable funders are making their own moves. One of our speakers, Cathy Duvall, co-leads the Redistricting Reform Project, a five-year plan “to bring fairness to the system once again.” A portion of the coalition’s funding will go to developing a “Data Hub” to provide key census and redistricting data and assist with training and analysis as needed. Other funds will go to litigation where the Supreme Court is likely to take up important redistricting cases this term, including determining the permissible limits of partisan gerrymandering.

With or without clarity from the courts, many agree that redistricting should be kept out of the hands of politicians. That’s the case in California, one of six states that has an independent redistricting commission (in about 43 states, state lawmakers get to decide how to draw the maps). Redistricting commissioner Connie Malloy will be on hand to explain how it works and what could work better, as well as foundation funding efforts to win and implement reforms for fairer districting.

Independent commissions may be a step in the right direction, but reasonable people will always disagree over one fair way to draw a district. In addition, basic demographic shifts have been happening for quite some time, while Democrats generally pack themselves into urban districts.

There is a pretty good argument against drawing tidy lines against all else according to our panelist Justin Levitt, a law professor and redistricting expert. “Dropping a bunch of squares seems fair,” Levitt tells Oliver, “but… Americans don’t live… in squares. Our communities are irregular and random.”

With a dwindling number of competitive districts — less than 15 percent of U.S. House seats — in an increasingly polarized climate, the funding community can move the needle so election results are less the result of crazy lines and more the result of our own crazy decisions.

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