How to un-rig an election: In "Slay the Dragon," citizens fight back against gerrymandering

Salon talks to filmmaker Barak Goodman and "Ratf**ked" author David Daley about the new doc "Slay the Dragon"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 4, 2020 1:55PM (EDT)

Slay The Dragon
Slay The Dragon

Well before the disgraceful travesty of the 2016 presidential election, David Daley became aware that something was profoundly broken in American democracy. At the time, Dave was my boss and the editor in chief of Salon, and I remember feeling mildly baffled when he told me he was writing a book about congressional redistricting. I thought of him as more of a bookstore guy, an arts-and-culture guy, than as the kind of hardcore wonk interested in the granular details of how state legislatures drew the maps for congressional districts.

Oh, sure — we were all becoming aware that Republicans had gamed the system somehow, and had locked in what looked to be an unbreakable majority in the House of Representatives through the 2020 census. (Like most of us, Dave was actually wrong about that part, but it took a historic wave election driven by extreme revulsion against President Trump to break through that barrier.) But there were varying explanations for that, and as I discussed with Dave during our Salon Talks interview last year, a lot of people bought into the semi-innocuous "big sort" theory, which held that Democratic and Republican voters had geographically rearranged themselves in a manner that just happened to create artificial legislative majorities for the GOP, even as it represented an ever-smaller proportion of the U.S. population.

What Dave discovered, well ahead of the rest of us, was that the "big sort" as a big load of crap. After their historic gains in the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans had thoroughly and completely pantsed the Democrats with a ruthless and sophisticated mapmaking project across numerous states, with the specific intention of maximizing their own voters' power in rural and suburban areas and minimizing the power of likely Democratic voters, especially people of color in urban areas.

We know this now. But Dave's bestseller "Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn't Count" is one of the biggest reasons why. Dave joined us in studio last April along with filmmaker Barak Goodman, who (along with co-director Chris Durrance) adapted "Ratf**ked" into the new documentary "Slay the Dragon." That film was originally slated for theatrical release, but as you're aware, things have changed. Instead, you can watch it right now at home, on various streaming platforms and through most major cable providers.

My interview with Daley and Goodman aired live in April 2019, when "Slay the Dragon" premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Daley's follow-up book — the somewhat more optimistic "Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy" — was recently published as well.

Watch our full conversation below, or read this transcript (lightly edited for length and clarity) to find out how Republicans —and, to be fair, some Democrats — rigged elections in key states, how gerrymandering blunted the 2018 blue wave in many places, and what the courts are (or mostly aren't) doing about it. 

I'm sure many of our viewers and readers already know about your book "Ratf**ked," which is about the issue of gerrymandering and redistricting. That used to sound like a super boring topic, only of interest to the most tedious political wonks. But in fact it speaks to many of the problems in our democracy. As you say in the subtitle, it's why your vote doesn't count.

David Daley: I think a lot of us misunderstood gerrymandering several years ago. We did think that it was wonky or boring or dry, but we also perhaps thought it was yesterday's news. There was the sense that the Democrats had self sorted themselves into these districts —

"The Big Sort."

Daley: "The Big Sort." That it was geography, that it was natural clustering. And really, I mean, I was at Salon and I was running our politics coverage every day and I didn't fundamentally understand why Democrats didn't take back the U.S. House in 2012. Every day we were covering a government shutdown. We were covering the 50-odd attempts to repeal Obamacare. We were covering the failure to even be able to get a conversation about gun control after kindergarteners got massacred at Sandy Hook. And I looked up one day and I said, but why didn't Democrats take back the house when we reelected Barack Obama? When Democrats took back the U.S. Senate? And oh, it turns out the Democrats got 1.4 million more votes in 2012 than Republicans nationally? Then I looked at individual states and I said, wait a second. How is it possible that Pennsylvania sends 13 Republicans and five Democrats, how is it possible that Ohio sends 12 Republicans and four Democrats, that North Carolina has 10 Republicans and three Democrats?

And I kept looking back and I found this Republican strategy called REDMAP, which is short for the Redistricting Majority Project, that a handful of savvy Republican strategists assembled in the aftereffects of the 2008 election, when Republicans thought that they might be in the minority in the country for a generation. They realized that 2010 was actually the truly consequential election because that's a redistricting year: We redraw all the lines across the country, state legislatures, and in Congress. And what they did was they invested $30 million in a program to flip state legislatures, little local races around the country in Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And they flooded these races with millions of dollars of dark money. They took control of these chambers. They, the following year, draw these radical lines with the help of supercharged technology and big data, and our politics has not been the same at the local level, or the national level, ever since.

Now, some people may want to jump ahead to say, well, look at the 2018 midterms, Democrats claimed 40 seats. Doesn't that mean the problem is not as bad as that? But I know you know the answer to this.

What do you think the 2018 distribution would have been in the House if we had fair districting?

Daley: Well, the amazing thing about 2018 is that in the most gerrymandered states in the country — Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio — a blue wave hit and not a single seat changed hands. So it's still 12-4 in Ohio, it's still 10-3 in North Carolina, it's still 5-3 in Wisconsin. The only states where you saw a change — two seats in Michigan flipped — in the most gerrymandered states in the country, in the fourth election cycle of these gerrymandered maps, that is not the sign of a gerrymander being defeated. That is the sign of a really effective and enduring gerrymander.

If you look at this at the state legislative level, it is even more dramatic — 220,000 more votes for Democratic candidates in Wisconsin, the Democrats gained one assembly seat and they cut the Republican advantage there to 63-36. This is in a year in which Democrats sweep all of the statewide offices. Governor — 

Governor, attorney general — 

Daley: A U.S. senator, everything else. They pick up one seat in the state assembly.

First of all, many of these gerrymanders had been overturned by the courts. So Pennsylvania becomes a 9-9 state after the State Supreme Court finds those maps unconstitutional.

The neutral observer would say [that's] probably about right.

Daley: It's a competitive 50-50 state. So it ought to be 9-9. It had been locked in 13-5. So Democrats gained four seats there. There were new maps drawn in Florida. There were new maps drawn in Virginia.

Democrats made gains in 2018, three-quarters of the seats that were flipped were drawn by courts or by commissions. So they were able to thread the needle and win the handful of seats that they needed to take back the majority, but they remain at a serious detriment nationwide. And these are the maps that they'll be competing on in 2020 as well.

Right. And we use the term "partisan gerrymandering" because the courts have been very direct in most cases about striking down obvious cases of racial gerrymandering. We mostly don't exactly see that, although there is certainly some crossover because of the tendency of African American voters to vote Democratic.

Daley: Absolutely.

But partisan gerrymandering remains a problem that the courts haven't completely addressed. You've written about this a lot. We did just see a decision come down in Michigan. What are the consequences of that?

Daley: It's an amazing decision. Michigan now follows the state Supreme Court ruling in Pennsylvania, and then the federal court rulings out of Wisconsin and North Carolina, it becomes the fourth state to have struck down completely a map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. They called it "a gerrymander of historic proportions." This gerrymander in Michigan had been so effective. Not only had it locked in Republican control of the congressional delegation, even in years in which Democrats won a quarter of a million more votes statewide, but Democrats have won the popular vote in Michigan for the State House [in] 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018. You want to guess how many of those years they've actually won more seats? Not a single one.

So what you have here now is another case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. These cases immediately go to the Supreme Court on appeal. And so it stands in line behind the North Carolina and Maryland cases that we expect a ruling on in June. And I think we ought to be excited about this ruling. It comes from a bipartisan panel of judges, but the real ruling on this is going to come in June and it's going to be up to John Robertson and Brett Kavanaugh.

Which is a very interesting problem.

Daley: Yeah, I'm not sure I feel optimistic about that.

Chief Justice Roberts has shown some waffle on this. Is that fair to say?

Daley: Roberts showed more openness than I thought in the oral arguments. In the past he has very much not wanted to invest what he sees as the impartial integrity of the courts for calling balls and strikes by having to decide when there's too much politics involved in drawing a map. John Roberts may be the last person in the country who actually believes his own bullshit.

Brett Kavanaugh actually did seem a little bit offended by the gerrymander in Maryland, which is the one gerrymander in the country ... the single district in the nation that you can really point to as a Democratic gerrymander.

Which it was. Let's just say that.

Daley: Which it absolutely was. And I've written about it extensively. Democrats attempted to draw a map that would give them all eight of Maryland's seats. When the incumbents realized that might be cutting it a little bit too thin, they said let's go for 7-1. And so they did a 7-1 map and they turned Maryland-6 completely inside out. This offended the delicate notion of Brett Kavanaugh and he did see the problem here. Whether he will be willing to do something about it would be amazing. It would also be deeply ironic if it is the one Democratic gerrymander of the 2010 cycle that actually leads to the first ruling by the Supreme Court that partisan gerrymandering was unconstitutional.

In a way, we would have Maryland's corrupt Democratic Party machine to thank for that.

Daley: We would. Thank you, Martin O'Malley.

First time anybody's ever said that. Barak Goodman, tell me about how you got from reading Dave's book to deciding to make a documentary about it.

Barak Goodman: Well, I think all of us had that experience in our lives of reading a book that really changes us — "Fast Food Nation," "The Jungle."  

"The Jungle," wow.

Goodman: That's the kind of experience I had reading David's book. I knew very little about gerrymandering. I think maybe I'd heard of the phrase and kind of had a vague idea. I was absolutely shocked by what I read. I think because like a lot of people, we know that the parties disagree with each other. We have our personal political views, but we tend to think that elections are basically fair. That basically everyone's vote counts the same. And it sounds incredibly naive now, but several years ago, that's what I sort of thought. And then I read this book and I was just floored. So I immediately called David and no one had optioned the book yet, and Dave was kind enough to come aboard our project. We ended up going with Participant Media, a wonderful company that makes very good films, but it was clear to us that we needed to move beyond the story of project REDMAP, which is definitely a major part of our film, to the story of those people who are fighting back. And particularly we focused on two big stories.

One, a state level ballot referendum, which was originated by a young woman named Katie Fahey who had never done anything in politics. She was 27 years old, got up one day and said, I'm going to do something about this issue. Galvanized an incredibly inspiring grassroots movement in Michigan, bipartisan, ordinary people out there every day in every weather, getting signatures, getting on the ballot. Overcoming every possible obstacle you can think of that was thrown at them by the entrenched power in Michigan. Really inspiring. The other main story we tell is the story of what became the Gill case that went to the Supreme Court at the time we began following it, it was still at the state level. And the lawyers and plaintiffs had brought this case equally passionate, equally inspiring folks.

What's the text or the subject of that case? Just so people know.

Goodman: The case involves the state-level maps in Wisconsin, which are, as David explained, incredibly gerrymandered. What makes that story a great political suspense story, and sort of a political thriller, is that they were able to excavate essentially during the lawsuit the tick-tock of how these maps were done in secret by a very small group of political consultants. And managed by getting a forensic computer expert to dig into the hard drives that were used during the mapping process — by the way, they tried to erase them, but this guy was able to find files within them. They're able to reconstruct the process, which showed this very cynical testing of limits: How can we draw these maps in an ever-more partisan way to ensure ourselves X number of seats no matter what? Even if there's a huge Democratic wave — and there was one in 2018 — we'll still have 60 seats in the legislature. And guess what? They nailed it. And so we tell the story, and how these folks brought this case they wanted to the state level in a very inspiring way. And then went to the Supreme Court where it was promptly punted by the Roberts court. So those are the sort of stories we tell in the film.

Talk about the connections between the gerrymandering issue and — let's talk about the kind of stuff that we saw, for example, in the Stacey Abrams [gubernatorial] race in Georgia, where the nation was disconcerted by the degree of apparent voter suppression. A guy who was the secretary of state administering the election in which he himself was running for governor wound up winning a very narrow victory. To what extent is that all part of a power strategy?

Daley: I think that there's a lot of different threads in what you're talking about here, but I would say that the very first thing that gerrymandered legislatures do is they make it harder to vote in their states. So if you look at North Carolina, if you look at Pennsylvania, you look at Michigan, Wisconsin, the spread of voter ID laws across this country since 2012 across 25 states, 24 of them being Republican trifecta states, what you begin to see is that gerrymandering is the first step of the process when it comes to trying to entrench yourself in power. The next thing you do is try to pass the voter ID laws that then cull the electorate down. The next thing you might do is eliminate days of early voting or make it harder to vote absentee. 

Yeah, we've seen all those things.

Daley: In some of these states, in Ohio and North Carolina, they have done this so much that a federal court in North Carolina said that this was done surgically. That they specifically targeted the kinds of IDs that African Americans were least likely to have and demanded those or that they specifically identified the days in Ohio and in North Carolina which African Americans were most likely to vote early, and then eliminated exactly those days of voting. In North Carolina, what they did was they had a county election boards that governs elections there, and ordinarily the governor is able to appoint the members of that. In North Carolina they said, what we're going to do is alternate years. How about if we take all the even years and you get all the odd years?

What's the problem here?

Daley: Elections are held in the even years. So it's those county election boards in North Carolina, in Georgia, that then determine how many precincts are opened, how many machines each of those precincts get. And you see it not only in Georgia, but in Kansas and many states around the country, especially where secretaries of state were administering their own races for governor, like Brian Kemp was in Georgia, like Kris Kobach was in Kansas. You see how immediately a precinct start closing. You know, Georgia wanted to close seven of the nine precincts in one [predominantly] African American town.

And this, I think, is what is so inspiring about this film and this moment: Around the country, people are recognizing the importance of this. They're understanding that this is not wonky. That this is the bread and butter of democracy, the ability to actually get to the polls and cast a meaningful ballot in a genuinely competitive election. And that it is systematically being taken away from us. And we are systematically standing up, one by one, and fighting back.

Kris Kobach — who, before running for governor in Kansas, was the head of Trump's so-called voter fraud commission — the fact that he was the secretary of state running all this stuff and still lost in a state that has been dominated by Republicans for the last 30 years, I thought it was a sign of this, right, that some Kansas voters and including, presumably, a lot of registered Republicans, said, I can't go there?

In Michigan, the redistricting reform passes with 62% of the vote. In Florida a proposition for giving the right to vote back to formerly convicted felons passes with 64% of the vote. In 2018 a redistricting reform passes in Ohio. It passes in Utah, it passes in Colorado, it passes in Missouri. This is not a partisan issue as seen by voters.

Voters want their votes to count, elections to be fair, and the side with the most votes to win. Politicians are trying to entrench themselves in power and rig those roles.

You just framed it as is politicians trying to entrench their own power, and I think that's accurate. But to what extent does this intersect with what has been called the "New Jim Crow," an attempt to essentially disenfranchise first and foremost black people, but probably also Latinos, who tend to disproportionately vote for Democrats?

I mean, we did a couple stories about Dodge City, Kansas, which has a majority Latino population, and officials moved the one polling place out of town —

Daley: Out of Dodge.

Literally out of Dodge. To a shopping mall in the suburbs that was not served by public transportation.

Daley: That's exactly right. I think it is deeply connected. I mean, listen, Republicans had a choice after 2008. They could have looked at the changing demographics of this nation and crafted policies that tried to appeal. Or they could take the path that they chose, which was gerrymandering, voter suppression and putting up barriers between the public and the ballot. It's a deeply cynical strategy. We see it at work across the country. You see it at work now. In Michigan, right now, the state senate is attempting to take away the funding for the secretary of state's office in order to actually implement the commission that 62% of Michigan voters said that they want for redistricting.

In Florida, they are literally going back to old Jim Crow tactics and instituting a poll tax for the 1.4 million former felons who were given their right to vote back by 64% of Floridians, a supermajority in a year in which Republicans elected a governor and a U.S. senator. Still, 64% of the people said no, these folks have paid their debt to society. And now they're trying to add all kinds of draconian fines and fees ... the practice is cash-register justice in the most brutal ways to make it even more difficult for people to vote.

Goodman: You talk about Jim Crow. There's a story that we tell in the film. In North Carolina, the way in which the gerrymander was achieved was by packing African Americans into what they call majority-minority districts, far above the level that would insure them representations. So there are two districts in particular, the first and 12th in North Carolina, where they essentially just rejigger the lines to shove as many African American voters as possible into those districts, thereby basically diluting the power of their votes everywhere else. And we interviewed people in North Carolina, they were in the film, who find this — you know, there is a long history of Jim Crow in North Carolina. They finally had achieved some progress in that state. They finally had felt belonging-ness, part of the process, that their votes counted, and now this happens and they really feel more than ever — and there's voter ID laws being passed all the time — that all that progress has been taken away. It's heartbreaking.

Daley: The congressional line in Greensboro, North Carolina, cuts across the heart of the historical black university there. Just divides: Seven of the dorms on one side, six on the other, and one side of the cafeteria.

It's not subtle.

Daley: It is not subtle.

Barak, it seems like you really tried to execute the combination in many successful documentaries that are about activists or activism. You're trying to outline a very serious problem, but also present the idea that there are solutions and there is hope. You're not going to bum people out at the end of the movie, right?

Goodman: And that's more than a contrivance. There is hope, and David has covered it extensively. There are ordinary people fighting this. They recognize what's happening, which is the first step. Because this is all taking place in hiding, behind closed doors, and now we have to drag it out. We hope our film will help drag it out into the light.

There's a problem here though, because the ordinary means of fighting this would be through the ballot box. But the problem is this is exactly where the stuff is targeted. There's a great line in the Michigan decision that just came out, which basically pointed a finger right at the Supreme Court and said, justice is. Clearly that was intentional. We the courts cannot allow the [inaudible] of voting rights to stand and hope that somehow it will be cleared up by some magic in the ballot box because it won't. The courts in many states are the only recourse really left. There aren't ballot referendum possibilities in many states. So to get around this problem, we need the courts. We need the Supreme Court to step up. Otherwise this is going to continue to be a problem, I think you would agree, going into the next decade.

We will never know whether Trump would have won the 2016 election without Russian involvement. There's no way to know exactly how votes they did or did not move. But I would put it to you guys that what you're talking about here is 10 times more important, because it's more deeply entrenched. We don't know for sure that the Russians elected Trump. We do know for sure the effect that redistricting has had on democracy.

Daley: This is what we've done to our own democracy. This is not what the Russians have done to us. This is what we ourselves have done. I've said it before: If our democracy is a horror film, the call is coming from inside of this house. We have done this. We have to fix it.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

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