At an office in a WeWork in Washington, D.C. sits Democrats’ best hope of reversing decades of Republican gerrymandering.
Created two and a half years ago, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) employs a lean staff of 15. It shares upper floor office space with the business website Yelp.
Democratic leaders say it’s no exaggeration to suggest that this modest operation may be America’s best hope for saving democracy as we know it.
Eric Holder, the former US attorney general and a Democratic elder statesman, is the public face of the ambitious effort, which he says is a no-holds-barred attempt to fix a badly skewed election map that has become one of most serious problems facing the party.
“The organization is needed to ensure that we have a fair redistricting process in 2021, so that we do not spend another decade on maps that have been manipulated to benefit one party,” Holder told ThinkProgress last month.
Democrats say that Republican conniving — and, they freely admit, their own neglect — allowed the GOP to gerrymander them out of the majority in numerous state governments around the country. They’re vowing to change all that, and say that the party is determined to fix the problem within the next 10 years.
“It’s rare that our party is able to come together around something specific,” John Bisognano, NDRC’s executive director and a former official in the Obama White House, told ThinkProgress during a tour of the organization’s offices.
As they proceed with their plans for redistricting reform, Democrats say they’re putting an outsize emphasis on drawing fair maps. The goal is not to give Democrats control so they can gerrymander themselves, like party leaders in Maryland did in 2011. Officials with the NDRC insist it is vitally important to take away built-in advantages that both parties have put into place. This strategy is not born of altruism or selflessness. Democrats believe that if voting is not rigged, they will win most elections. When balloting is free and fair, most Americans will opt for Team Blue. Democrats have won the popular vote, after all, in six of the past seven presidential elections.
Republicans, on the other hand, have fought hard for the right to continue rigging election maps into oblivion, even if — or perhaps, because — they make up a shrinking share of the electorate.
Democrats believe that if voting is not rigged, they will win most elections
There have been glimmers of good news for Democrats on the voting rights’ front. Republicans were dealt a heavy blow a few weeks back, when the Supreme Court rejected their arguments in favor of putting a citizenship question on the U.S. Census — a move that would have prevented millions of African Americans and Latinx Americans from being represented during the 2021 redistricting process. The Trump administration finally ended its efforts to add the question to the Census just last week.
But even with those few bright spots, Holder readily admitted to ThinkProgress that when it comes to drawing election boundaries, Democrats are playing catch-up to the GOP.
“As a party, we were not prepared or focused on the issue of redistricting in the way that Republicans were in 2011,” he told ThinkProgress in an email. What was needed, he continued, was “a single entity that was focused solely on the issue of redistricting as we get closer to 2021.”
Democrats dropped the ball once, but Holder says they won’t let that happen again. That’s where the NDRC comes in.
The offices of the NDRC are bright with large-paned windows. On one wall hangs a picture of Barack Obama. Another is adorned with three colorful “We The People” posters depicting of Muslim, Latina, and African American voters — a nod perhaps to people of color, who stand to lose the most under a gerrymandered election map.
On an interior pillar in the office, there’s a framed front page of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper. It’s from Election Day 2018, loudly proclaiming in its headline that Democrat Tony Evers had won the state’s squeaker gubernatorial race over then-Gov. Walker — one of the most skilled and notorious Republican practitioners of the dark art of gerrymandering.
“We were not prepared or focused on the issue of redistricting in the way that Republicans were in 2011,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says.
Walker took full advantage of Wisconsin’s heavily gerrymandered maps that gave Republicans a stranglehold over the state legislature at the turn of the decade, signing off on extreme anti-union laws, among other draconian measures.
Walker is the very embodiment of the woeful reality that progressives have been trying to recover from for a decade: that Democrats got destroyed the last time the congressional and legislative lines were drawn in 2011.
The party was completely unprepared to counter the Republican Party’s investment in state legislative races during the 2010 midterm elections, which allowed the GOP to control the redistricting process in Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia and a number of other key states. Republican lawyers quietly redrew legislative maps in ways that were unmatched in their shrewdness and their ruthlessness, allowing the party to reap historic electoral gains.
Heavily-doctored election maps gave Republicans control of the U.S. Congress throughout Obama’s second term, and allowed them to block the president’s legitimate agenda. Gerrymandering also helped give the GOP supermajorities in state legislatures, allowing lawmakers to pass a number of harmful anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ laws. In the intervening years, courts across the country have deemed some of those rigged election maps unconstitutional.
Republicans also used cutting edge software to draw the election maps in as partisan a way as possible. GOP leaders in Wisconsin, Michigan and several other states secretly drew their gerrymandered maps behind closed doors, with the help of lawyers, outside groups, and private attorneys.
According to an analysis by the Associated Press, Republicans won 16 more U.S. House seats than expected based on their average share of the vote in congressional districts across the country, and held onto as many as seven legislative chambers that might have flipped to Democrats had it not been for the skewed maps.
Even the landmark 2018 midterm vote this past fall, which saw the House flip to Democratic control, was not as dramatic as it might have been without an election map severely gerrymandered by Republicans in 2011.
The GOP accomplished all of this by outspending Democrats in state races during the 2010 midterm elections, in which they picked up 675 legislative seats throughout the country. In several states, they took control of both legislative chambers and governors offices allowing the party to draw new Congressional and legislative maps completely unchecked.
Republicans won 16 more U.S. House seats than expected based on their average share of the vote.
The NDRC now aims to take a sledge hammer to those rigged districts. Democrats are hoping to wrest control of the boundary-drawing process in red states like Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio. They plan to target elections that could help Democrats regain either one of each of the states’ two legislative chambers or its governors seat. That would give Democrats a seat at the table when the maps are drawn or at least give them the power to veto unfair districts.
To this end, the NDRC is pouring millions of dollars into key legislative races in 2019 and 2020. Millions more will be spent on the effort by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), the arm of the party that works to elect Democrats to state legislatures. Affinity groups like EMILY’s List, the non-profit committed to electing pro-choice women candidates — are committing millions more, with a focus on down-ballot race and state legislatures.
The NDRC has filed legal action or given its support to lawsuits against gerrymandered jurisdictions and racist state laws that marginalize Democratic voters. And it is sending Holder around the country to raise awareness about redistricting, an issue that in previous cycles has gotten far too little attention in party politics.
The group also has been gathering pledges to ending gerrymandering from 2020 presidential contenders and elected leaders. And it is planning to mobilize thousands of volunteers in various state houses throughout the country to monitor the redistricting process and call out gerrymandering when it happens.
To call attention to the issue of redrawing boundaries, the NDRC is getting help from the Democratic Party’s biggest star — former President Barack Obama, who has been rallying in support of various candidates and raising funds for the cause.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe recounted how Democratic leaders held a powerpoint presentation before several dozen donors in 2016 at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, to discuss the urgency of addressing the 2021 redistricting process.
But what made it clear just how dire the situation was for Democrats appears to have been Donald Trump’s election as president in November 2016.
The cataclysmic election led to a summit of party leaders several weeks later, including President Obama, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- CA) and McAuliffe, who at the time was governor of Virginia.
They were facing the hair-raising specter of Democrats having lost the White House at the same time that Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. Republicans also had a stranglehold on a number of state legislatures, thanks to years of gerrymandering, allowing the GOP to control the upcoming redistricting process and retain a disproportionate amount of power for another decade.
The NDRC is pouring millions of dollars into key legislative races in 2019 and 2020.
During the hour and a half long meeting, Schumer, Pelosi and McAuliffe told the president that Democrats needed to turn their attention towards the upcoming redistricting process and enlisted his support in the effort, the former Virginia governor said.
McAuliffe said the meeting was sobering, but helped give Democrats the jolt they sorely needed. “We got our clocks cleaned and we got clobbered in 2011. Absolutely clobbered. And that’s when people began to have a real wake-up call and we’ve got to get serious,” McAuliffe said.
“We learned a very tough lesson. You know the numbers and what happened in 2010 and all those chambers that switched. I’ll just tell you this,” he added, “It’s not going to happen again. We’re on our game now.”
As shocking as the 2016 election result was for Democrats, it was not the first sign of trouble. Severely gerrymandered maps had been a long time coming. Republicans had gerrymandered during the last redistricting process in the early 2000s — an issue McAuliffe had personally grappled with as chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005.
And the GOP never hid its intentions: Former George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove laid out the party’s plans to refashion the nation’s election maps in a March, 2010 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that “he who controls redistricting can control Congress.”
Democrats now have their work cut out for them, but they’re not starting completely from the ground floor. Officials say long ago began squirreling away funds funds for the 2021 redistricting fight. In recent years, they launched the super PAC Advantage 2020 that has raked-in millions to fund key state races, and Unrig the Map, a fund that has raised money for governor’s races in key battleground states.
“The good news is, we’ve raised a lot of money and we’ve got people focused on it, we’ve got the tools,” McAuliffe said.
“We learned a very tough lesson,” said former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “We’re on our game now.”
Democrats are also taking action on the legal front. The NDRC, through its affiliate the National Redistricting Foundation, has supported lawsuits against Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, as well as a racial gerrymandering case in Texas, in which the U.S. Supreme Court last year overruled a lower court and largely upheld the state’s partisan maps. It hired as its counsel famed election lawyer Marc Elias of the DC law firm Perkins Coie, who separately filed a lawsuit challenging Virginia’s racially skewed maps that were crafted by its Republican legislature.
The NDRC, with Elias, earned its most important legal victory last month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that Virginia’s racially gerrymandered maps needed to be redrawn. The decision gave Democrats an edge in the state’s upcoming election and a shot at controlling the redistricting process there.
The NDRC in 2018 provided financial support in various key races, including $13 million in political contributions and campaign appearances and backing from Obama in several state legislative races.
“That is unusual but also very cool and great for those candidates,” said NDRC spokesperson Patrick Rodenbush. “If you are running for your state House seat and you get an endorsement from Barack Obama, you are putting that on every mailer, you are putting that on all of your fundraising literature.”
Part of the NDRC’s strategy is making redistricting a serious campaign issue. The group recently launched the “Fair Districts Pledge,” which asks elected officials and candidates (including presidential and state contenders) to commit to supporting fair redistricting.
Officials at the NDRC say Democrats have made up valuable ground in the arms race for cutting edge technology used to draw maps for state legislatures. The organization says party leaders have greatly upgraded their systems. And the NDRC is slated to double in size by year’s end to 30 employees. Many of the new hires will be state directors who will oversee the organization’s campaign efforts in key states.
The NDRC also makes use of data from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee that shows which state races are winnable to help them decide what campaigns Democrats should invest in to flip legislative chambers and benefit the redistricting process.
The DLCC’s Executive Director Jessica Post told ThinkProgress the party now uses “best in class tools” that it did not have a decade ago. “We can correctly predict the result of the more than 5,000-plus races that will be on the ballot in the 2020 election cycle,” she said.
Early results have been encouraging: The NDRC targeted 230 state House and Senate races in 2018. All of those seats were controlled by Republicans, but when the dust settled after the midterm elections, Democrats had won 61% of those races, according to Rodenbush, who is also a former assistant press secretary at the Obama White House.
Democrats won eight governors races that the NDRC targeted, including Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin during the midterms and Virginia in 2017. The party also flipped six legislative chambers: the state Senates of Colorado, New Hampshire, Maine and New York, and the lower chambers in New Hampshire and Minnesota House.
Democrats also broke supermajorities in four chambers: the North Carolina House and Senate, the Michigan Senate and the Pennsylvania Senate. And they made significant gains in seven other legislative chambers: the Michigan and Pennsylvania House, the Ohio and Texas House and Senate, and the Virginia House of Delegates.
The NDRC this year also absorbed Obama’s political action group, Organizing for Action, which consists of the former president’s supporters, volunteers, and donors, to create the All on the Line campaign. All on the Line volunteers will stake out State Houses and public hearings during the redistricting process to ensure the map making process is being done transparently and call out Republican gerrymandering as it happens.
Despite those inroads, Democrats say they know they can’t allow themselves to become complacent again. Just as they are ramping up their redistricting efforts, Republicans are revving up theirs, too.
Democrats can’t allow themselves to become complacent. As they ramp up their redistricting efforts, Republicans are doing the same.
Walker, who helped lead the 2011 gerrymandering efforts in Wisconsin, recently joined the NDRC’s counterpart, the National Republican Redistricting Trust, as its national finance chair. And his agenda sounds very much like the one Democrats have.
“For donors and activists — absolutely, there is not nearly the level of intensity right of center as there’s been on the far left” surrounding redistricting, Walker told Politico during an interview in March. “That’s why I’m trying to raise the issue’s importance.”
Holder cautioned that unless there is a “blue wave” election like the one in 2018, gerrymandering could continue to allow a Republican party with “minority views to hold a majority of the power in state legislatures and the House of Representatives,” he said.
Even after the upcoming redistricting process ends in 2022, officials at the organization don’t foresee a time when the organization won’t be needed. “Map manipulation has negative consequences that last well beyond Election Day,” the former attorney general said.
“When politicians represent gerrymandered districts they are most likely to cater to the extremes of their party and special interests than the concerns of the people they represent.”