Why We Fight Gerrymandering

Democracy in America is in trouble. All across the political spectrum, Americans feel alienated from their government. They find it distant, ineffective, corrupt, and interested primarily in serving the powerful at the expense of everyone else. Many millions have given up in frustration, feeling powerless to do anything. Others have embraced partisan warfare, turning our politics into a zero-sum battle for total dominance. The spirit of compromise is seldom seen, and idealistic belief in the promise of democratic self-rule seems almost hopelessly naïve. These are the conditions under which authoritarians rise and republics fall — believing the system has failed them, people look to strongmen for salvation.

The promise of a “great leader” is a false one; only we can fix what is broken. The Founders created this government to serve us, the American people, and if the government is failing in that service, it is our responsibility to do something about it. Fatalism, hopelessness, and nihilism get us nowhere — we must recommit ourselves to the ideals and hard work of democratic self-rule and take the system back for ourselves. The task seems almost impossibly huge, but this is America — there is nothing our can-do spirit and grit can’t overcome. A huge task such as this requires that we choose a place to start: to fix our broken politics, we must first take back control of our elections, and to do that we must put an end to partisan gerrymandering.

“A huge task such as this requires that we choose a place to start: to fix our broken politics, we must first take back control of our elections, and to do that we must put an end to partisan gerrymandering.”

First, a brief primer for those unfamiliar with gerrymandering. Every 10 years, the federal government conducts the census, after which seats in Congress are re-apportioned among the states based on relative shifts in population. After each census, the states undertake the process of redistricting — new election district maps are re-drawn to account for the change in the number of seats. In practice, all the districts, state and Congressional, are subject to change, so the district maps can change significantly every 10 years.

Our system of redistricting is inherently corrupt: the party that controls the state legislature draws the boundaries of the districts for every state and federal elected official. As you might imagine, the party in power uses this authority to draw maps that magnify its own power and weaken that of its opposition, often resulting in monstrously bizarre districts; the first such district was called the “Gerrymander,” and that name has come to describe any district drawn with absurd boundaries that serve partisan ends. Texas, as it turns out, has been one of the worst offenders — for decades, Democrats drew shamelessly gerrymandered districts, and Republicans are now returning the favor with a vengeance.

As an example of the power of partisan gerrymandering, consider the effect of Texas’ 2003 off-cycle redistricting, engineered by Tom DeLay. Prior to the redistricting, Democrats held 17 Congressional seats to Republicans’ 15; after the election following the redistricting, Republicans controlled 21 seats to the Democrats’ 11, a 6 seat swing. This huge swing was not the result of changes in population or a wave of political change; it was due almost entirely to how lines were drawn on a map. This is what happens when legislators are allowed to choose their voters.

“This huge swing was not the result of changes in population or a wave of political change; it was due almost entirely to how lines were drawn on a map.”

Partisan gerrymandering has tremendously corrosive effects upon our democratic system. Its tainted process and the absurd districts it produces are tangible evidence to the electorate that the system is rigged, eroding their faith in our elections. Gerrymandered districts can span hundreds of miles, joining together dissimilar communities with no real connection, resulting in “representatives” who represent little beyond raw, partisan power. The near-certainty of incumbent reelection in gerrymandered districts depresses turnout, discourages challengers from running, and contributes to elections being determined by small percentages of voters in increasingly partisan primaries. Artificially large legislative majorities are constructed, producing skewed policy outcomes and a false impression of ideological dominance. Partisan gerrymandering is a perversion of democracy, sacrificing fair elections and faithful representation to partisan advantage and the will to power.

This corrupt process has always been a problem in American politics, but the need to end it is greater now than it has ever been. The advent of Big Data and sophisticated statistical analysis have made it possible for parties to combine electoral, demographic, and consumer preference information in a way that allows them to predict with great accuracy how people will vote down to an almost individual level. The result is partisan gerrymanders of exceptional precision and durability, endowing dominant parties with artificially large majorities that are stable, even in the face of large changes in voter preference. These technical capabilities have only advanced since the 2010 redistricting, promising to make the next round of partisan redistricting even worse.

“Victory is possible: over 70% of Americans oppose partisan gerrymandering regardless of their political affiliation.”

We must act now, or risk America becoming a democracy in name only. This fight will not be short or easy — powerful entrenched interests in both parties do not want to surrender the power and security they gain from this corrupt system. Victory is possible: over 70% of Americans oppose partisan gerrymandering regardless of their political affiliation. Defending this system of institutionalized cheating is impossible, and no elected official wants to do it. If we are loud enough, organized enough, and persistent enough, we can force our representatives to publicly answer the question they do not want to hear: will you end partisan gerrymandering, or will you defend it? Faced with defending the indefensible, their system will crumble and we will take our first step in reclaiming the republic for the people.

Call to Action:

Call Cindy Burkett, chair of House Redistricting Committee, and Joe Straus, Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives about Congressional district Redistricting. Ask why there aren’t hearings being held on bills that could end hyper-partisan, racist gerrymandering of Congressional districts in Texas. Bills awaiting hearing in committee are HJR 32/HB 369, HJR 74, and HJR 118. NONE of the redistricting bills introduced over the past 4 cycles have been called to hearing. That means that in the past 8 years, every effort to de-gerrymander Texas has been ignored.

Thanks to Degerrymander Texas. More info here.

On calling the House Redistricting and Senate State Affairs committees

Greetings redistricting warriors! I have some pointers for how to approach your calls to House and Senate committee members. I am not a fan of supplying scripts — according to a recent article in the New Yorker, scripted calls are more likely to be ignored. If you can put key ideas into your own words, your call will have more impact as it will be more organic. To that end, I have generated a list of bullet points to consider before you make your calls. Think about them, figure out how to organize them, and express them in your own language. Don’t feel compelled to hit every one, or even any of them if you feel uncomfortable — the most important thing is to make the call and have your position logged; anything beyond that is a bonus!

If you are the type that likes to engage, remember to be respectful — it’s easy to get worked-up. Stay calm, but be persistent; staffers will be polite but will, in general, be politely blowing you off. When you talk to committee members about redistricting, consider the following points:

  • In light of the recent court ruling striking down racially gerrymandered districts, Texas is in danger of needing federal pre-clearance of district maps under the Civil Rights Act. A truly independent redistricting commission would shield Texas from federal oversight.
  • There is a large, bipartisan majority of voters (> 80%) in favor of some form of independent non/bipartisan redistricting
  • Redistricting is an issue that affects every Texan — at the very least, it deserves a public hearing.
  • You will likely be told the member has not looked into the bill — ask why the member has still not looked into this important issue.
  • Ask for a direct answer on the member’s views on redistricting: does he/she prefer partisan or non-partisan redistricting? The staffer will not give you an answer — request that they get back to you with the member’s answer.

I think that last bullet point is the most important one. The more we ask, the more likely we are to get an answer. If we can compile a list of members that oppose redistricting, we have the makings of a press release about committee members who support gerrymandering and may be able to generate more press interest. If they refuse to answer, that itself can be the basis for a story — committee members refuse to take a stand on gerrymandering.

If you are a repeat caller like me, you’ll find it more useful to focus your attention on the chair and vice-chair because what we want at this point is a public hearing, and they have control over such procedural matters. If they continue to refuse to consider public hearings, we can go to the press and try to push the story that the committees are blocking public hearings because they prefer Texas’ partisan gerrymandering.

Senate Committee on State Affairs committee members

House Redistricting Committee members

Tilting at the Redistricting Windmill

Listen: Carthy Shelton, Stephanie Swanson and Josh Hebert, DeGerrymander Texas; Liz Haltom, Texans Ending Gerrymandering

Like many of you, I am a newly activated liberal. It feels great. Yes, Trump is terrible, and the short-term outlook looks bad for a lot of public priorities, but his elevation has triggered an awakening that will persist after his time is up. I’m not going to quit and I know a lot of you aren’t either — America will be a better place for it. If earnest, patriotic, informed Americans like ourselves don’t take up the reins of self-governance then who will, amirite?

Burnout is always a concern, so I’ve decided give myself a local, shorter-term focus: advancing redistricting. In the state of Texas, we are behind the eight-ball: not only do the politics lean right in general, but the district maps are drawn in a way to even further disenfranchise those who do not lean right. Every battle in Texas is an uphill one, but that hill is made impossibly steep because of extreme gerrymandering. The fight to get fair districting in Texas is the foundational fight that makes all other battles more likely to succeed.


In the news, all of the attention is on the battle in the courts. There is much that is encouraging there, but we must not relinquish the fight before the Texas Legislature.

At this moment there are bills in both the House and Senate advancing bipartisan and nonpartisan redistricting commissions: HJR32, 74, and 118, HB369, and SB209. HJR32 and 74 will place ballot measures before the voters for the bipartisan commissions established in HB369 and SB209, respectively. HJR118 is a constitutional amendment creating a nonpartisan redistricting commission. HJR32/HB309 covers the state and federal legislative districts, HJR74/SB209 only covers Federal congressional districts, whereas HJR118 covers state, federal, and State Board of Education districts.

The bipartisan plans have a number of features in common: both choose members in the same, bipartisan way and redistricting plans require a supermajority vote of a 7-member bipartisan committee; both require that deviations in population size be kept below 2.5%; both require that district territory be contiguous, with joints at a single point being prohibited; both forbid any kind of racial or ethnic discrimination in the map drawing.

The differences, aside from the scope, are worth noting: the Senate plan contains provisions for the training of committee members, makes use of the notion of the compactness of a district and of drawing lines on natural boundaries, which is important to keep districts from sprawling halfway across the state, and in general has more detailed reporting requirements; the House plan is distinguished by forbidding the commission from considering partisan demographics or past partisan voting patterns in the drawing of district lines.

The nonpartisan commission bill HJR118 was introduced later in the session (the text became available earlier this month). It appears to be modeled closely on the bipartisan commission established in the state of California —it places boundary guidelines in a numerical order of priority: 1) follow the Constitution and strive for equal population; 2) follow the Voting Rights Act; 3) be geographically contiguous (contiguous is not defined); 4) cities, counties, neighborhoods, and communities of interest excluding those defined by partisan affiliation shall be kept intact where possible; 5) be compact (not defined); 6) not consider the place of residence of elected officials, nor partisan advantage. It lacks the training element of SB209, which is a weakness — analysis of California’s commission showed that such training is important. It general, it does not deal with the known problems that arose in the execution of the CA commission. That said, it is the only nonpartisan option — I would prefer elected officials be kept out the process entirely.

I want to stress that these are not perfect redistricting bills, but they are what we have to work with and are an important start — any of them would be a huge improvement over what we have now. There are only two legislative sessions, this one and 2019, before the next round of redistricting, so it is important that we resist making the perfect the enemy of the good. In any case, our chances of getting any of these bills through this session are small, but we can start the ball rolling by getting these bills onto the public radar. To that end, here is my short-term goal: get both the House and Senate to schedule public hearings on these bills.

If we can get public hearings, we get the opportunity to create a spectacle and draw attention to the issue. I believe Indivisible can generate a huge crowd of people from around the state to show up and testify, and doing so will accomplish something real and important.

Lawmakers ignore this issue because it is invisible — it is up to people like us to make it visible. There are substantial bipartisan majorities in favor of some kind of non/bipartisan redistricting plan, and showing up in large numbers to remind legislators of this fact does two things: it puts worry in the minds of legislators that fighting this issue can hurt them, and it gives potential candidates for office a popular issue to run on in any upcoming election in any district. On a longer-term basis, public hearings allow us to prepare the ground for an even more substantial fight in the next legislative session. They will be our public announcement: we are going to fight hard for this, so y’all better get ready.

Here’s what I’ve been doing to make that happen, and you can do it, too.

  1. I’ve contacted all the House and Senate committee members and expressed my support for these bills. I let the legislators know that even though I may not be in their districts, redistricting is an issue that affects all Texans, so I feel compelled to let them all know how I feel. Next, I’m calling the committee chairs on a weekly basis to check on the status of the bills. I’ve been getting politely blown off so far, but the more I call, the more I can start asking hard questions like “Why is Chairperson XXX refusing to deal with this legislation?” The more people that do this, the better — sustained pressure is what we need. Senate Committee on State Affairs committee members are here; House Redistricting Committee members are here. A list of bulleted talking points is here. In general, it is better not to follow a script. Scripted calls carry less weight than messages than you put into your own words, so spend some time with the bullet points figuring out what, if anything, you want to stress.
  1. I am calling media outlets throughout the state to encourage reporters to publish/produce stories on the redistricting bills before the legislature. I searched their sites for redistricting articles, noted the byline and contacted that reporter directly. I’ve contacted Texas’ public media outlets in a similar way. I’ve used both phone and e-mail, and have been successful with both, though e-mail appears to work better. I’ve been pitching the story as the logical follow-up to the court fight — Texas has a problem with how its district maps are drawn, and there are bills in the legislature that will make districting fairer and free it from the watchful civil-rights eye of the federal government. As the process moves forward, the story hook will need to change, so be flexible and creative; remember that reporters want to tell a story, not hear you complain, so pitch something you think many people would want to read.
  1. Finally, while Indivisible is a nonpartisan organization, that does not mean that you need to ignore your own partisan affiliation. Regardless of your affiliation, I encourage you to contact your party officials and leadership and let them know that this issue is a priority for you and that you would like to see them make a priority of it as well. I contacted my Texas State Representative Celia Israel the other day and had a nice conversation with a staffer about strategy. He hadn’t even considered a lot of the things I suggested, and it was a very productive conversation. He let me know that Manny Garcia is the head of messaging for the Democratic Party in Texas, so I called Manny directly and talked to him for a while about making redistricting a priority. He was a little hesitant at first, but it didn’t take long before he recognized the strategic value in taking this on right now. We’ll see if anything comes of it, but I intend to remain in contact with him.

As a next step, I plan to develop a statewide action group that focuses on redistricting, starting within Indivisible Austin. At the moment, there is a lot of basic, ground-level organization going on within IATX, and that process is going to take a while to shake out. Local district groups will have their own priorities, which is great and it’s what we all want to be a part of. That said, there are issues that affect all Texans and I’d like to leverage the power of Indivisible statewide in order tackle those issues: redistricting is a perfect example.

I can’t do this alone! If you would like to be part of this effort, please get in touch with me by email. Maybe we can set the example for how these groups are formed and organized for Indivisible groups across the state of Texas

I look forward to hearing from you all. Let’s make Texas fair!

Other ways to get involved:

Texans Ending Gerrymandering

Degerrymandering Texas