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OPINION

It’s the PowerPoint that redefined American politics

Once politicians choose their own voters, they can build barriers that make it more difficult for the other side to vote.

Demonstrators outside of the Supreme Court in Washingston, D.C. during oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford called for an end to partisan gerrymandering on Oct. 3, 2017.
Demonstrators outside of the Supreme Court in Washingston, D.C. during oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford called for an end to partisan gerrymandering on Oct. 3, 2017.Olivier Douliery

Ten years ago, while Democrats were enjoying complete control of Washington and believed that changing American demographics would ensure large majorities for a generation, Ed Gillespie and his team at the Republican State Legislative Committee quietly hopscotched the nation and sold top conservative donors and lawmakers a different and audacious vision. Republicans would retake power in states and in Congress by weaponizing the oldest trick in the book: the gerrymander.

Gillespie outlined an elegant plan. Sure, 2008 had been a tough election for Republicans and historic for Democrats. But approached from the right angle — down-ballot, state legislative races — 2010 could prove far more consequential. After all, this wasn’t any old election. It was a census-year election. And following the census, state legislatures (in most states) redraw every state legislative and congressional district nationwide.

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There would be 6,000 state legislators elected in the fall. Republicans, he said, would target 107 key races across 16 battleground states — including Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Success would change the GOP’s prospects overnight — and last for another decade. The strategy’s name? The Redistricting Majority Project. REDMAP for short. It produced exactly that.

Gillespie’s private presentation, which I obtained exclusively while reporting a book on REDMAP, lays out the stakes. Win those seats, and the GOP could fully control the drawing of nine new congressional seats after the decennial reapportionment of the US House of Representatives. They could affect the new maps in five states that would lose seats. And they could strengthen Republican redistricting power in swing states, wiping expensive competitive districts off the board and handing Republicans the dominant position in state legislatures and congressional delegations.

REDMAP succeeded beyond the GOP’s wildest dreams. It proved a bargain — and a heist. Republicans spent $30 million that fall, submerging slackjawed Democratic incumbents in sleepy local races under a torrent of sophisticated negative ads and sweeping control of those state legislatures. The following year, they locked Democrats out of the room and remapped Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and more behind closed doors of secret “Bunkers” and “Map Rooms,” with the help of the most powerful computers, advanced mapping software, and precise data sets ever set loose on redistricting. And they haven’t lost power in any of these states yet.

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We live in the nation REDMAP created. More than 59 million Americans — nearly 1 in 5 of us — live in a state where Republicans won fewer statewide votes during the 2018 elections but nevertheless control one or both chambers of the state legislature. There are no people who live in a state where Republicans win more votes but Democrats maintain power. In Wisconsin, where voters in 2018 reelected a Democratic US senator, defeated incumbent governor Scott Walker, swept Democrats into every statewide office, and preferred Democratic state assembly candidates by a margin of 200,000 voters, Republican maps provided an overwhelming 63-36 GOP majority anyway.

Gerrymandered maps remake policy. Sometimes it’s the difference between life and death. In Michigan, a gerrymandered legislature reinstated a controversial municipal emergency manager law that voters overrode via initiative. In Flint, that led to the emergency manager switching the city’s water supply to the Flint River. In Florida, after 64 percent of voters embraced a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to 1.4 former felons, a gerrymandered legislature attached a 21st-century poll tax that would allow only a fraction of that number to re-register. In Ohio, Alabama, and Georgia, gerrymandered legislatures approved “personhood” bans on abortion despite public opinion polls that showed majorities opposed to these tough new restrictions, even in these reliably red states.

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Gerrymandering makes elections less competitive and reincentivizes politicians to cater to extremes and act as an accelerant on polarization in divisiveness. In Wisconsin and North Carolina, half of all state legislative races lacked any major party challengers at all in 2016. In Georgia, that number was a staggering 80 percent. When general elections don’t matter, low turnout off-season primaries become all important, meaning politicians bend over backward to please their base — compromise and consensus-building become impossible.

Gerrymandering sends a new breed of politicians to Washington. In North Carolina, one of the congressional districts redrawn via REDMAP turned a consistent swing seat in the western part of the state into hard-core red territory. The moderate Democrat took one look at the new lines and retired. A local sandwich shop owner named Mark Meadows jumped into the race, ran on a “birther” platform of sending President Obama “back to Kenya or wherever it is he comes from,” and won the all-important primary. In Washington, Meadows helped overthrow then-Speaker John Boehner, orchestrated a government shutdown over Obamacare funding, and is now Donald Trump’s chief of staff. He’d still have the sandwich shop if not for gerrymandering.

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Gerrymandering remakes history. Americans reelected Barack Obama, gave Democrats control of the Senate in 2012, and cast 1.4 million more votes for Democratic US House candidates. Republicans kept control of the House anyway, 234-201, and Obama’s second term agenda was over the night of his reelection.

Finally, gerrymandered state legislatures target voting rights, often as task one. Once politicians choose their own voters, they can build barriers that make it more difficult for the other side to vote. Republican legislatures have enacted new voter ID bills, purged voting rolls, closed precincts, eliminated early voting, and made it more difficult for activists to conduct voter registration drives. In Wisconsin, a federal court found that a voter ID bill there had the potential to keep as many as 300,000 voters from casting a ballot in 2016. Donald Trump carried the state by less than 24,000 votes.

Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic that may make in-person voting this fall dangerous, some of those same gerrymandered legislatures have toughened eligibility for absentee ballots, added onerous witness requirements, tightened voter registration procedures, and stopped secretaries of state from covering postage costs or sending mail ballot applications to everyone.

It’s a census year once more. Democrats seem aware of the stakes this time. But Republicans retain the upper hand and have a sophisticated plan for REDMAP 2.0. Yes, the White House is on the ballot this fall. But so is the next decade of maps. The president elected this fall wins a term that runs through 2024. No one gets another crack at these maps until 2031.

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David Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.