Political Gerrymandering Draws Scrutiny

Following the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans will control more seats in state legislatures than at any time since the Great Depression. This means they will control the redistricting process, which happens only every 10 years. The process of drawing election districts so as to give one political party a majority is called gerrymandering. Host Michel Martin speaks with Jeff Riechart about his documentary "Gerrymandering."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the Latin Grammys are tonight in Las Vegas, and if you weren't lucky enough to score a ticket, and we weren't either, you can watch it on Univision or the live stream online. And we will tell you the hot names to watch out for, with the host of NPR's all-Latino podcast. That is a little later in the program.

But first, though, a quick turn to politics and what one conservative writer called the most important outcome of the last election - the fact that Republicans control more seats in this country's state legislatures than at any time since 1928. With that control comes the power to redraw the lines for more congressional and legislative districts.

Now, the process of redistricting takes place every 10 years after the census and it's quietly coveted by the political parties so they can draw the lines to give their respective parties, especially their incumbents, an advantage. The less than flattering name for this is gerrymandering, and it's the subject of a new documentary of the same name.

Joining us to talk more about the documentary, "Gerrymandering," is the writer and director of the film, Jeff Riechart. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. JEFF RIECHART (Documentary Filmmaker, "Gerrymandering"): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, how did you get involved in a documentary about this? This is the kind of thing that, you know, it seems like it would be a snooze fest.

Mr. RIECHART: Yeah. And a lot of people along the way, as I was trying to make the film, said, well, how are you going to make a movie about redistricting? It's so super boring. But I heard about this anecdote in 2003 where a bunch of Texas legislators, about 52 of them, got on buses in the middle of the night and fled to Oklahoma and hid out in the Holiday Inn for four days, basically to stop a re-redistricting of the state led by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

And so it got me thinking, well, these people are staging this huge protest at the potential cost of their political careers over lines on a map - these lines determine who gets elected, who gets represented, what kind of candidates can run in districts. I mean it's really the foundation for how our democracy works.

MARTIN: Why is it called gerrymandering? And gerrymandering doesn't refer to a process of simply drawing the lines. That refers to an abuse of the process, correct?

Mr. RIECHART: Yeah. Redistricting is supposed to be just a benign kind of administrative practice that takes place every 10 years. We have to adjust the lines to account for population. The problems come in when you have political manipulation of the process. And the term comes from 1812. There was a governor of Massachusetts by the name of Elbridge Gerry, who was in office and his party decided to disadvantage the other party and they drew a district that packed the members of the other party into that one place. And it looked to a political cartoonist of the day like a salamander. And so he said, it's not a salamander, it's actually a gerrymander.

Elbridge Gerry didn't draw the lines himself and he was actually kind of a good guy in the history of our government. But now we only remember him for this. And we don't even say it right. So I feel like Elbridge can't really catch a break.

MARTIN: If you just tuned in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking to Jeff Riechart about his new documentary "Gerrymandering." Now, Jeff, this issue, as you noted, has been around for quite some time, but it often comes to public attention when ethnic minorities, for example, see that their numbers are increasing in a particular area and feel that they should have more representation. I just want to play a short clip from the film about an exchange with Kathay Feng. She's of the nonprofit group California Common Cause. Here it is.

(Soundbite of film, "Gerrymandering")

Ms. KATHAY FENG (California Common Cause): In 2001 I had a particularly pleasant experience with an assembly member who during the redistricting process, she called me up. This is in San Francisco. And she called me up to say, Kathay, you're not going to put another F-in' Asian in my district. And it was that type of arrogance - and, frankly, racism - that drove me to ask the question, does it make sense for incumbents to be drawing these lines?

MARTIN: Well, what about that point, Jeff? I mean, if incumbents don't draw them, who's going to draw them?

Mr. RIECHART: That quote kind of goes to show that one man's redistricting is another man's gerrymander. You know, there's no way to produce plans which everyone is going to agree is fair, or everyone is going to feel that they're fairly represented. 'Cause we can't really draw 100 percent districts where everyone is going to get the representation that they want. So the problem then becomes about process, because if we all can't agree on the products of redistricting, we should at least try to focus on processes that we like a little bit better.

There are arguments that people make for allowing incumbent legislators to draw the lines. People say that these incumbents, they know the districts because they have to represent the districts. They're electable. So if you don't like the results of a redistricting plan, you can boot them out of office. But the problems with that is that, you know, oftentimes incumbents know the district so well, they know which pockets of the districts don't want to vote for them, so they cut them out come redistricting time.

MARTIN: Well, to that point, here's another clip from the film. It features a man named Hakeem Jeffries, a candidate for assemblyman in Brooklyn's 57th district, lest anybody think that this is restricted to one part of the country. And let's hear what he had to say. The incumbent had been in office for a while and Jeffries looked like he might win. So let's listen to what happened next.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Gerrymandering")

Unidentified Woman: They drew a map that literally carved out the block on which Hakeem Jeffries lived.

Mr. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (Assemblyman, 57th Assembly District, New York): I remember shaking my head in disbelief. Broken politics can be pretty rough but that move was gangster.

MARTIN: Well, the film makes the case that a lot of people are outraged about this. This is a practice that's been going on for quite some time. But is anybody doing anything about it?

Mr. REICHERT: There are initiatives that passed on ballots in a number of states in just this past election, I think the vote on Proposition 20 and Proposition 27 in California was maybe the most important election that took place in the entire country, because what the passage of Proposition 20 allows is the creation of an independent commission to draw congressional districts in California. That's really the big prize, the drawing of congressional districts.

And I think if that process works well, if people like the independent commission model in California, you're going to see a lot of states looking really carefully at that. And a lot of advocacy groups being able to point to California as a success story and saying, well, if a state as big and as complicated as California was able to do an independent commission and get good lines out of it, why aren't we doing it here in Texas, New York, Florida, Michigan, et cetera?

MARTIN: Jeff Reichert is the writer and director of the documentary "Gerrymandering" that looks at redistricting processes that are manipulated to give one side an advantage over another.

If you want to figure out how you can see "Gerrymandering," please just go to our website. Go to npr.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

Jeff Reichert joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks so much for coming.

Mr. REICHERT: Thanks for having me.

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