How Legislators Manipulate Elections in the USA: An Interview with Gerrymandering Director Jeff Reichert
by Jessica Mosby
On Tuesday you may think that you are going to the polls to choose your next elected official, but the upsetting reality of many congressional and state elections is that incumbent politicians have manipulated district boundaries to decide the outcome of elections before any votes are cast. During every election we experience the effects of gerrymandering, and yet outside of high school civics class, the term “gerrymander” is not commonly used or understood by most voters.
To Gerrymander: To divide (a territorial unit) into election districts to give one political party an electoral majority in a large number of districts while concentrating the voting strength of the opposition in as few districts as possible.
The new film Gerrymandering clearly explains its namesake while documenting how racial, partisan, and incumbency gerrymandering are responsible for the state of our democracy. Director Jeff Reichert approaches his subject matter with a sense of urgency, as the United States will once again redistrict in April 2011 based on the results of the 2010 census.
The 77-minute documentary follows Reichert as he travels across the country talking to constituents and politicians – Republicans and Democrats alike – about gerrymandering. The film focuses much of its attention on the 2008 passage of Proposition 11 in California, also known as the Voters First Act. The initiative takes the power to redistrict California’s 120 legislative districts away from the state legislature in favor of a newly created 14 member, politically-balanced commission of voters. The passage of Proposition 11, spearheaded by California Common Cause’s Executive Director Kathay Feng, marks a dramatic change in the redistricting process. According to Feng, “[Proposition 11] is really about putting power back into voters’ hands, making sure that community testimony is listened to, that communities are unified, and so that when voters go out to vote that our votes actually matter.”
Gerrymandering persuasively captures the wide-ranging and bipartisan effects of redistricting, especially considering that most voters have no idea the extents to which politicians manipulate their district boundaries. For viewers who believe that redistricting is only a local issue, Gerrymandering credits much of President Barack Obama’s early political rise to a redistricting in Chicago. As Sam Issacharoff of the New York University School of Law explains, in the 2000 Democratic primary election for the House of Representatives, then Illinois State Senator Obama was defeated by four-term incumbent Bobby Rush. The district he ran in was solidly African American, and covered most of the South Side of Chicago. But two years later in 2002, Obama’s neighborhood was redistricted to represent a “heavily white liberal constituency.” He was reelected to the State Senate, and now represented a completely different district, even though he had not moved homes. This redistricting, which placed him in a more affluent constituency, is considered a major factor in now President Obama’s 2004 election to the United States Senate.
As the fall election quickly approaches and the 2010 census results are being prepared for delivery to President Obama, Gerrymandering is particularly relevant. The documentary is currently in theaters nationwide.When Reichert was in San Francisco to promote the film, he and I met to discuss his filmmaking process and the timeliness of the documentary.
How did you first become interested in the divisive issue of gerrymandering?
It was about 2003. In the film we show how the Texas legislators fled the state to stop the Tom Delay led re-redistricting that year. It was the first time I ever heard of [gerrymandering]. Some people have this background where they’ve learned a little about redistricting and gerrymandering in civics class, but for me I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t think about the fact that I lived in a district. I never even think, at that point, that I had conceived of the idea that districts could change, and that people had to draw the districts to decide to put people in and put other people in other kinds of districts.
The Texas case, it’s a great awareness raiser because there’s such great theater to it. But then I started doing more research, and realizing that – wow – this is something that happens in every state, every ten years. There are thousands of districts between state legislative seats, school boards, congressional districts, and they all have to be drawn by somebody. When you look at the history of it, the lines are drawn by people who most stand to benefit from the way the lines are drawn, which are the politicians.
And how did this lead you to make a documentary?
That part is a little fuzzy. I heard about this thing in 2003, and it wasn’t until 2005 that discussions about making a film started. I think there were some articles at the time that re-raised the issue of Texas in 2003 that also brought in some other kinds of case studies. I remember reading a bit about the classic case of an incumbent lawmaker, whose party is now out of power, [who] in the redistricting process finds his house drawn out of the block by a district. And he walked with the reporter around his house to show how the district line had carved his house out. That kind of thing seemed to be fairly egregious and also seemed like it could be something that could be pretty visual. You can’t film a gerrymander per se, but you can film somebody walking around the spaces that used to be his district that aren’t anymore.
As evidenced by interviews in the film, many voting Americans do not know what “gerrymandering” means. Why did you decide to title your film Gerrymandering with the knowledge that some people might be turned off by the film just because they do not understand the title?
We still go back and forth a little, my producers and I, because we thought about changing the title at times. But we couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t sound like a Sylvester Stallone action movie, like “Over the Line.”
I like the idea of a title that announces itself and says “this is what the thing is that you’re going to watch.” I also think that people may not know what gerrymandering is, but the term is one of those things that’s instantly intriguing. What is this thing? It sort of leads into this idea that there is this whole world of politicking that goes on that we don’t really know about that happens to have this absurd name attached to it.As a director, it is obvious that you attempted to make the film rather apolitical. How did you go about creating that moderate tone?
It was about trying to strike a balance. In a way there are good guys and bad guys, but it is always more complicated than that. Some people feel that we vilify Tom Delay for his actions in Texas in 2003, but there are ways in which the maps Tom Delay produced ended up being better for Texas than the maps the Democrats had drawn in the 1990s. Redistricting is incredibly complicated and I think what we tried to do is make sure we got as many people on both sides of the aisle to sit down with us and talk about these issues, and make sure that the stories themselves were calibrated in a certain way. So it wasn’t just all instances of Democrats doing to Republicans or Republicans doing to Democrats. We’ve got a mix: Democratic politicians trying to advance themselves, Democratic politicians messing with other Democratic politicians, Democrats and Republicans working together. I think when you put it all together it paints this picture of a system where it’s a lot more clubby and collegial in terms of the redistricting process than it is in the actual legislature.
Now that you have spent years familiarizing yourself with this subject, do you see the passage of Proposition 11 as changing the status quo?
I think it remains to be seen because the commission hasn’t had a chance to draw lines yet. What happens this electoral cycle is really important. (California Proposition 20, the Congressional Redistricting Initiative, and California Proposition 27, the Elimination of the Citizen Redistricting Commission Initiative, are both on the ballot.) People are already trying to stop the commission before we even have a chance to know if it’s going to work - if it’s going to produce better districts. So I’m hoping that [Proposition] 20 passes and [Proposition] 27 doesn’t pass, and the commission has a chance to draw some lines. If they can show here that the lines drawn produce more competition and some changeover in representation, other states are going to look and say “why can’t we do this” – and then hopefully give it a try. The problem is that most states don’t have the initiative referendum process so they can’t just put it on the ballot and vote for it, it has to go through the legislature. Even so, if it passes here I think there is going to be a lot of impetus from other states to try and do something.
What has the reaction to the film been, especially considering the impact of gerrymandering on President Obama’s political career?
So far so good. The reviews have been very positive and when I go to screenings people seem very appreciative that we made the movie, if they agree or disagree with different parts of it. The one thing I really like is that after we premiered at Tribeca, I read a review online from some guy who talked about how the film is overt in my naked partisanship and how I just spent the whole film vilifying Tom Delay. I sort of looked at it like we spent less than two minutes talking about Tom Delay, but conservatives can be touchy about certain things. So, I wrote it off. Then a few months later after we screened at the Seattle Film Festival – a very liberal town, obviously, and very liberal audiences – someone wrote on the Seattle Film Festival website asking why they’d chosen this conservative screed and I was just a conservative hack trying to attack Democrats. I feel like if we can inspire those two types of reactions then we’ve actually done what we were supposed to do because both sides seem a little pissed off by it.
About the author:
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.