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"Slay the Dragon"

What are the real-life effects of political gerrymandering?

David Brancaccio and Jarrett Dang Sep 15, 2022
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David Daley, author of "Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy," says gerrymandering has allowed some politicians to safely ignore the will of voters. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
"Slay the Dragon"

What are the real-life effects of political gerrymandering?

David Brancaccio and Jarrett Dang Sep 15, 2022
Heard on:
David Daley, author of "Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy," says gerrymandering has allowed some politicians to safely ignore the will of voters. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
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COPY

Every month, our Econ Extra Credit series focuses on a documentary film with “Marketplace” themes. (Sign up for our newsletter here!) This month, we’re diving into “Slay the Dragon,” a documentary about the fight against gerrymandering in Michigan after the 2010 midterm elections. Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing election maps to create an advantage for one’s political party over its rivals.

David Daley, author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy” and “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count,” is a prominent voice in the film who points to gerrymandering as a cause of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In his view, gerrymandering also cleared the path for the abortion restrictions that emerged after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this year. Daley says that in heavily gerrymandered states like Wisconsin is and Michigan used to be, the practice has allowed politicians to effectively insulate themselves from voters who disagree with their policies.

States must redraw their congressional districts every 10 years after the census. Some have independent commissions that draw the maps, but most give the task to state legislatures. Daley argues that an inherent conflict of interest arises when elected representatives are in charge of determining their own political boundaries.

“Whenever you allow politicians to draw their own districts and choose their own voters, you are incentivizing them to lock themselves in office,” he said in an interview with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: David, American democracy is in some ways a miracle. But would you say our Founders really stepped in it with the census and then the states drawing up the lines?

David Daley: I would say they most certainly did. Whenever you allow politicians to draw their own districts and choose their own voters, you are incentivizing them to lock themselves in office. And with the kind of technology, sophisticated mapping software and computer programs and just the terabytes of voter data that’s available out there on all of us, the kinds of gerrymanders that are drawn now are of a magnitude so different than the ones that Elbridge Gerry [the U.S. politician from whom the practice took its name] and the Founders did themselves a couple of hundred years ago. They are of a magnitude different than the ones that were done even 20 years ago. These lines choose winners and losers, and they have warped our democracy in Washington. They have warped our democracy and state legislatures nationwide.

Brancaccio: This interview is clearly about drawing lines, and you draw a line between this fine art of redrawing districts and these new laws outlawing abortion in various states.

Daley: I think you can, right? I mean, Justice [Samuel] Alito, in his decision in the Dobbs case, suggested that what he was doing was simply returning a contentious issue of abortion to the people, their elected representatives and the political process. But in reality, he was returning it to these gerrymandered state legislatures where lawmakers, so insulated from the people, are able to pass extreme laws that voters, overwhelming majorities of them, actually do not want and do not support. When you look at the map of where abortion has been outlawed in this country since Dobbs, you might see a number of states that make sense, perhaps, a number of red states in the South. And then you look up and see that Wisconsin is one of those states. Wisconsin has an 1849 law that banned abortion, and when Dobbs overturned Roe, it went back into effect. Some 70% of voters in Wisconsin want to see some kind of abortion access available in that state. But the state legislature so gerrymandered that even when Democrats win the statewide vote by a couple of hundred thousand votes, Republicans hold near-supermajorities in the legislature refused to even consider it.

Brancaccio: The Flint, Michigan, water crisis. I mean, there’s this whole film that you could watch, an hour and a half, to explain what we’re gonna get a taste of right here, but to deal with a financial mess, the Republican legislature in Michigan put in an emergency manager for town affairs in Flint. And among the decisions that followed was a major switch in the water system that went horrifyingly wrong. David, you think without the one-party political power that came with this gerrymandering, the Flint water crisis wouldn’t have happened?

Daley: I think it could have been absolutely averted, yes. I would take the story back a little bit further. It was in 2011 when Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature dramatically expanded the state’s power to take over financially struggling municipalities and place them under control of a state-appointed emergency manager. Angry voters in Michigan toppled this law in a November 2012 ballot initiative. People organized and opposed it. They concluded that it gave the state too much power to usurp local control, to run roughshod over local officials, to undermine existing union contracts and pension deals. But one month later, Michigan’s lawmakers ignored the public. They reinstated the emergency manager program, and this time they went ahead and added a provision that ensured it could not be overturned by the people again. In the 2012 election in Michigan, Democratic candidates won 54.7% of the state House vote, Republicans held the majority in the state House after that anyway, 59 to 51. And so when the public in Flint, when citizens complained that their water wasn’t drinkable, that their kids were getting sick, when they complained, nobody listened because nobody had to listen.

Brancaccio: Gerrymandering, we often think of it as like a civics lesson, but it’s also about, “Can you drink the water?” Now, your most recent book is a lot less dire, I would say, than the one before the newest, “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.” Where do you get your optimism on this? Has it something to do where you change the voting system so politicians no longer pick the voters, as has been said, and instead, it’s voters picking politicians again? How do you get there?

Daley: We have just gone through another cycle of redistricting. It follows the census. So the ’22 elections this fall will be the first for Congress and state legislatures held on these maps. In many ways, these maps have been an extreme partisan, a bloodbath. You’re going to see the fewest number of competitive seats for Congress than we’ve had for some time. You’ve got a lot of state legislatures around the country that have been locked in, either extraordinarily blue or extraordinarily red. But voters are pushing back and fighting back. And one place you can really see this is in Michigan, where voters in 2018 came together Democrats, Republicans, independents and more than 60% of them amended the state constitution in order to take redistricting out of the hands of partisan politicians, and they put it in the hands of an independent commission made up of members of the public. And the lines that that commission drew late last year and early this year have been heralded by nonpartisan groups everywhere. And it seems really clear that in Michigan, for the first time in decades, the party that wins the most votes is actually going to win the most seats in the state legislature. That’s the way democracy is supposed to work. That’s the way our elections are supposed to work. And in Michigan, voters did not give up when confronted with a legislature that wanted to lock itself in power. They stood up, they fought back and they won.

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