This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.
David: We live in a 50/50 country, but one [in which] Republicans control just about all of the levers of power: 69 of 99 state legislative chambers, our modern record of 32 governors, trifectas in 25 states (both legislative chambers and the governor).
How do you explain how the country can be divided as equally as this, and yet Republicans control so much of the actual institutional power?
Zach: The short answer is because we have a political system that does not come close to accurately representing the popular will.
Talk about the presidency: nearly three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump. The electoral college gives more power to rural voters who happen to be white. Donald Trump is president.
In Congress, Republicans gerrymandered a number of major states. By a very small amount, more Americans voted for Republican members of Congress than Democratic this time, but not by the margin that’s reflected in the House. In fact, after the 2012 election, you had 10 million more votes for Democratic members, but you still had Republicans controlling the House.
The Senate is sort of gerrymandered by design. The small states, back at the founding, insisted on having states represented with two senators per state, regardless of population, in order to maintain their political clout. At the time, there was a 13:1 difference between the largest state, Virginia, and the smallest, Delaware. Today, that’s blown even more out of proportion. There’s 69 times more people in California than in Wyoming, yet they both have two senators.
[It’s] a failure by our political system to accurately reflect what people want. You also have restrictions on the right to vote, which have had a real impact in keeping certain demographics of voters—racial minorities, the young, the poor, who all tend to vote Democratic—away from the ballot box.
David: Everybody says, “You can’t gerrymander a presidential election.” One way you can is when gerrymandered legislatures systematically assault voting rights. There’s a pattern: in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, when you see a Republican trifecta in these states, the first thing they do is go after voting rights. You see extreme voter ID bills, limitations on absentee ballots, on mail-in ballots, early voting, automatic registration, mail-in registration.
The effect of this is to dampen Democratic turnout. Do you think there are reforms that could be enacted to go after [that pattern]?
Zach: It’s undeniable that this pattern exists, and you’re starting to see more people, and in some cases the courts, identifying that: where the same state that’s passing a strict voter ID law that discriminates against racial minorities is also passing a redistricting plan that discriminates against minorities.
[They are] using every tool in the toolkit to undermine the power of voters to elect the representatives of their choice and to have the policy outcomes they want. We are starting to see movement for a positive, pro-voter set of expansive policies, automatic voter registration being the one that’s caught fire the most. Six states in the last two years have passed versions of automatic voter registration.
You also see some states expanding early voting, making voter registration easier to do online. There was even a bill introduced in New York that would require mandatory voting. It’s not going to go anywhere, but that’s an issue that’s been bubbling up, and a sign that progressives and pro-democracy advocates are starting to have that larger conversation about how—instead of just fighting back against these restrictive laws—we move in the other direction and expand voting.
Of course, you’re seeing resistance to that among Republicans. Republicans understand that the fewer people that vote, the better Republicans do. The more people that vote, the better Democrats do.
But it’s also a manifestation of a deeper, underlying ideology that many conservatives have shared since the founding, that is distrustful of democracy as a concept and of the effect of giving political power to ordinary people.
Donald Trump has been quite skillful in playing on that, in summoning these fears. Not just that people are going to be voting illegally, because that’s essentially made up, but that giving political power to ordinary people—whether immigrants, racial minorities, or poor people—is going to be detrimental to the values that a certain group of voters hold dear. That’s the core of this fear.
We’ve had a lot of news lately about this effort by Eric Holder, supported by President Obama—I can’t quite tell if it’s to get Democrats to the redistricting game, too, so they can be just as partisan and ruthless as Republicans, or to support things like independent commissions, which would go further to fixing the problem.
Do you think that that effort is likely to succeed? What would they need to do to make it successful?
David: I think that the Democrats have finally woken up from their slumber. The Democrats of 2010 did not have the imagination to come up with the audacious redistricting play called REDMAP that Republicans brilliantly executed [and] announced publicly.
Karl Rove, in The Wall Street Journal in March of 2010, writes an op-ed piece in which he makes it clear that the Republicans were going to plot their rise back to power after the big Obama win in 2008 through redistricting.
Rove lays out that there’s 117 state legislative races that are key to redistricting, because it would tip control of legislative chambers and allow the Republicans to be the only party in the room when it came time to draw the lines the following year.
Those 117 seats, Rove writes, would create the power to draw 193 of the national Congressional districts (of 435). That gives you a good advantage. The Democrats lacked the imagination to pull this off, and then the ability to even play defense against something that is laid out in staggering detail in the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal.
“People think they can’t win these races, and to a large extent, they’re right. And President Obama is out there saying, ‘Lace up your sneakers, grab a clipboard, and become an organizer.’ The problem is structural.”
They are attempting now to figure out a road back. There is a lot more attention being paid down-ballot. President Obama, and his former Attorney General Eric Holder, have announced that they’re going to run the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, an umbrella organization to pull together the various Democratic campaign committees that have a role in redistricting. There’s also a litigation wing. It’s litigation that has had the greatest amount of success when it comes to Democrats and redistricting in recent years.
I am not seeing a true understanding amongst these leaders of the massive structural hole that they’re in. I understand that these people are partisans and consultants and that they need to believe that there’s an electoral path forward, but in so many of these states, you have the majority of people voting Democratic, but a supermajority of Republican legislators.
To overcome that at the ballot box, it’s going to take probably upwards of 60% of the vote in some states. In Michigan, in the last three cycles, you’ve had more votes for Democrats at the state house level than Republicans, and yet Republicans have maintained massive majorities.
In Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Wisconsin, all of which are largely blue/blue-purple states, the Democrats are in such an electoral hole that you can’t simply fight back the old way of trying to win elections. In a lot of these states, they can’t even find candidates. These districts are so warped that, in Wisconsin in 2016, 47 of 99 seats went uncontested. In North Carolina, 57 out of 120 legislative seats went uncontested.
People think they can’t win these races, and to a large extent, they’re right. And President Obama is out there saying, “Lace up your sneakers, grab a clipboard, and become an organizer.” The problem is structural.
Zach: They should be focusing more on lawsuits?
David: Yes. The litigation route has been the only route that has been effective for the Democrats. The efficiency gap case coming out of Wisconsin right now, which could lead to the first Supreme Court ruling that defines partisan gerrymandering, is a potential game-changer.
We have to think about litigation that gets us to actual fairness, but then we have to be thinking about the kinds of structural reforms that can lead to actual change, things we can do to reinvigorate our democracy to bring back dialogue, compromise, and conversation.
Zach: The danger is that if Democrats fail to win control in these states in 2020, then Republicans have the chance to do it all over again in 2021.
David: And the technology that etched these district lines in such stone is only going to be better, more dangerous, and more predictive by 2021.
If I’m a Democratic consultant right now, the only elections that I’m interested in are the governor’s races—in 2017 in Virginia, and in 2018 in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin—because governors in those states have veto power over bad maps. Democrats are not going to win back chambers in probably any of those states, but if you can win one state-wide election, you could at least have veto power, get yourself in the room, and put us on a road back to fairness.
Zach: I’m going to make a prediction for the next way that Republicans are going to undermine democracy on the state level. In 2018, there’s going to be a Democratic governor elected in one of those states while there’s a Republican legislature.
They’re going to do what they did in North Carolina, where in the lame duck session, they change the way redistricting works and undermine the power of the governor. Then they’re going to still have free reign to redistrict in the way that they want.
Does that seem plausible? You’re looking stunned.
David: Sometimes I find it difficult to have these conversations without a drink in hand. I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way, but of course that’s what they’re going to do.
Where do you see the modern roots of this coming from? How much blame do you put on things like Citizens United?
Zach: Citizens United and other Supreme Court rulings of the Obama era are responsible for a vast change in the landscape of campaign financing, and for a flood of dark money into the political process. That has given more influence to billionaires and corporations and less to ordinary people.
I wouldn’t say it has allowed billionaires to buy elections, it’s not quite that simple, but it’s swayed things in that direction. It’s difficult to draw a direct line to specific election results, and that’s one of the things that has allowed this situation to go on: it can be difficult to identify the exact result.
But studies show Congress and elected officials are more attuned to the preferences of rich people and campaign contributors than to ordinary people, and you see the distorted effect of that in policy outcomes.
To take a minor example: the carried interest loophole. Nobody thinks it’s a good idea, and if it were anything other than a huge benefit to extremely wealthy Americans who tend to be campaign contributors, it wouldn’t continue to exist. But that’s a concrete effect of how money has warped political outcomes.
The combination of the evisceration of campaign finance regulations, voting restrictions, and gerrymandering has altogether undermined American democracy in a way that has given much less power to ordinary people.
Talking about coverage of democracy and voting issues: [are there] things that you think current coverage isn’t doing very well?
“Reporters have a responsibility to lay bare what has actually happened to our political system. It has been captured by the extremes. It was captured intentionally and driven there. It’s not simply “The way that it’s done,” it’s the way that it was done to us.”
David: We [need to] start covering these issues in a more rigorous and sustained way that understands the context in which they operate. Nothing made me more frustrated during the 2016 campaign than the stories about “Can the Democrats take back the House?”
You would see these in TheNew York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, in good newspapers written by veteran political reporters, and they would manage to write 1,500 words on this topic without mentioning the words “redistricting” or “gerrymandering”.
It would drive me insane, because the answer was no. The Democrats were not going to take back the House last year, and there were specific structural reasons why. The lines were intentionally drawn to withstand the wave.
When people would nod to the structural advantage, it would be, “Because of the way districts are drawn.” That was the language that would appear time and again. [But] these are not lines that appeared from nowhere. These lines were drawn by partisans for the benefit of partisans, and to not be clear about the problems we face makes it impossible for us to talk seriously about how we fix them. If we continue to talk like these districts were handed down on a tablet, that this is simply the way the system works, we are not getting closer to an honest discussion.
Reporters have a responsibility to lay bare what has actually happened to our political system. It has been captured by the extremes. It was captured intentionally and driven there. It’s not simply “The way that it’s done,” it’s the way that it was done to us.
Sometimes mainstream publications aren’t comfortable calling out partisan motivations, or they want to suggest that both sides do it. When it comes to gerrymandering and redistricting, both sides have a long history. There are no virgins here. As long as lines are drawn by politicians, politicians are going to find a way to do it to their advantage.
But what happened in 2010 and 2011 was different. It was deeper, more sustained, more difficult to overcome at the ballot box, and it’s introduced dramatic challenges to our ability to sustain a democracy.
Zach: And in that case, it was only one party that did it.
David: In that case, it was.
“There’s a lot you can get away with while the vast majority of people aren’t paying attention that undermines democracy in a dangerous way.”
Zach: I felt like, during the 2016 campaign, the coverage from mainstream media wasn’t perfect, but it had taken a step forward. That was helped by Trump’s brazenness in talking about voter fraud, which gave even neutral reporters the ability to say, “Objectively, studies show that significant voter fraud simply does not exist.” But it sounds like, on redistricting, they haven’t had that moment yet.
But since the election, as a more casual observer, I’m seeing more recognition about what happened and how that undermined democracy.
David: It’s amazing to see hundreds of people on the street in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina protesting gerrymandering. They’re out protesting the thing that put us all to sleep in eighth grade civics class.
People understand that the way we draw these lines is how we create the fundamental building blocks of our democracy. And when the lines get perverted, so to do you corrode the essence of a representative democracy.
Zach: I used to think that there was consensus around democracy, that we may disagree about the economy or about the healthcare system or about foreign policy, but we all agree on democracy as the way to resolve those differences.
[Now, however,] it feels like there is a vanguard of the conservative movement that doesn’t believe in democracy, is skeptical of it, and is eager to undermine it at every chance that it gets, and a larger public that doesn’t really care that much either way. There are progressives who care, and I’m encouraged by that activism. But there’s a lot you can get away with, while the vast majority of people aren’t paying attention, that undermines democracy in a dangerous way, both in terms of election mechanics issues and also in the larger sense: freedom of press, freedom of speech, civil liberty, the underlying conditions that make democracy possible.
David: Our institutions are precarious ones, and the status of our democracy is more easily tipped over than we imagined it could be. I generally don’t approach these questions as a partisan, but as somebody who thinks that the side with the most votes ought to win. That is the essence of a representative democracy.
Look at the states that have enacted these kinds of voting suppression efforts—they have something in common. One party is in control of all of them. It’s approaching 25 states, now, that have enacted new voting restrictions since the 2010 election. Something like 22 of them have complete Republican trifecta control.
It’s a disturbing pattern, and one of the things I would have hoped was that you would have seen more voices in the Democratic party speaking up louder for a democratic agenda.
But I also imagined that you would have seen more voices in the Republican party speaking up for a democratic agenda. That’s been disconcerting—it simply doesn’t exist anymore. Occasionally Lindsey Graham will make a murmuring in that direction. But it never seems like enough, and it never seems fully committed to the kind of constitutional ideals that we all held relatively dear.