Redistricting Guru Thomas Hofeller's Files Could Mean Trouble For GOP Thomas Hofeller once referred to the drawing of legislative districts as "the only legalized form of vote-stealing left in the United States." The late Republican strategist's work may now be undone.
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Redistricting Guru's Hard Drives Could Mean Legal, Political Woes For GOP

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Redistricting Guru's Hard Drives Could Mean Legal, Political Woes For GOP

Redistricting Guru's Hard Drives Could Mean Legal, Political Woes For GOP

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

You may never have heard of him before this month, but Thomas Hofeller was a major behind-the-scenes architect of our modern politics. He passed away last summer. He left behind a redistricting legacy and a number of hard drives that could be important for decades to come. NPR's Miles Parks has more.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Thomas Hofeller loved redistricting. A mapmaker and Republican strategist, he saw holes in the democratic system that could be exploited by technology and guile. He saw a way to turn small vote margins into super majorities for GOP legislators.

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THOMAS HOFELLER: Redistricting is like an election in reverse. It's a great event. Usually the voters get to pick the politicians. In redistricting, the politicians get to pick the voters.

PARKS: That's Hofeller speaking at a National Conference of State Legislatures event in 2000. He was involved in some capacity in drawing maps in a number of states earlier this decade, places like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina, giving the GOP a substantial edge in narrowly divided states. Hofeller's talents were undeniable. And he also had a unique understanding of how to protect against lawsuits. At a presentation in 2011, he showed PowerPoint slides that said things like, make sure your computer's in a private location, and emails are the tool of the devil. Basically, he knew the practice was unseemly, and if politicians were going to partake, they needed good lawyers and a way to keep some dirty secrets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOFELLER: Loose lips sink ships. Remember, a journey to legal hell starts with but a single misstatement.

PARKS: That journey, in this case, might be starting with data. Hofeller died last summer, and after his death, his daughter stumbled on some of his hard drives and thumb drives and turned them over to Common Cause, a voting rights nonprofit. The first sliver of those files was released in a court filing last week. Lawyers say that the records show that Hofeller had an influence in the Trump administration's efforts to get a citizen question on the 2020 census. Here's Dan Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State.

DAN TOKAJI: It was not really, as they claimed, to get better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act so that Latinos could be fairly represented. In fact, there was a deliberate plan. And that plan includes the dilution of Latino votes and the enhancement of Republican voting strength.

PARKS: The question now is what else is in Hofeller's files? The data could be useful in other partisan gerrymandering lawsuits underway across the country. Kathay Feng is the redistricting director for Common Cause. While she wouldn't get into details on what else is in the files - because of ongoing litigation - she spoke generally about the dangers of politicians drawing district lines to favor their own party.

KATHAY FENG: This is an American democracy, and we don't want a situation where - perhaps the best analogy is like Russia, where you have fake choices on the ballot, where there is no such thing as true democracy, where your vote doesn't matter.

PARKS: Public opinion about partisan gerrymandering is consistently negative. A Campaign Legal Center poll from earlier this year found that about 2/3 of likely 2020 voters view gerrymandering unfavorably. Tokaji says the public getting a closer look at the unsavory details of Hofeller's work will only fuel those feelings.

TOKAJI: I think it's a little bit like "The Wizard Of Oz." It allows those of us who have not been in the back room to see the real partisan agenda.

PARKS: Experts say the more the public knows and understands about the practice, the less brazen politicians may be when they're redrawing the lines in 2021. At the time Hofeller was operating, redistricting was still considered a wonky practice. That allowed him to treat it like a grotesque art form. Here he is in 1991 at American University.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOFELLER: Redistricting is a very complex field. But I think it's a field which affects Americans a lot more than they understand. I define redistricting as the only legalized form of vote stealing left in the United States today.

PARKS: The open question is how much of Hofeller's work will be undone by the documents he left behind? Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington.

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