Fixing Bugs in Democracy: Gerrymandering

On April 17th, David Daley joined Sam Wang and Julian Zelizer for a gerrymandering-themed episode of the virtual town hall Fixing Bugs in Democracy, co-sponsored by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and the Pace Center for Civic Engagement.

Sam Wang, Director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, begins the conversation by asking Daley about his experiences outlined in his previous book, Ratf**ked, where Daley traveled around the country bumping elbows with various political figures and witnessing the suffocating consequences of gerrymandering firsthand. Daley explains the flagrant desperation of the Republican party to secure its position despite a fleeting support base, contrasted by the incompetence of the Democratic party to recognize a shift in tactics that was all but announced to them.

However, as Daley begins to lead the conversation into his new book, he shifts from a regretful tone to a more optimistic one. His new book, Unrigged: How Americans are Battling Back to Save Democracy, focuses not on what was lost among the struggle of the two major parties, but what was won by the people who decided it was time to take the government back into their own hands.

Here are some interesting highlights from the conversation:

Sam Wang: So, these are not gerrymandering stories, this is all kinds of democracy reform. This is now Medicare expansion, this is now getting voting rights back for one and a half million Floridians, so you covered a lot of stories.

David Daley: Yeah…I was down in Florida, I was in Utah and covered the events in North Dakota on Native American voting rights, went around the country on student voting rights – the passion that was unleashed in this country, that I think we saw especially in the 2018 election, was this citizen movement that was non-partisan, it was uniting Democrats, Republicans, independents. You don’t win Medicaid expansion in Idaho with 60% of the vote if you’re counting on Democrats – I think Democrats are about 14% of the vote in Idaho. You can’t win a constitutional amendment in Florida on felon voting rights at 64% of the vote in a year in which Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott are the statewide [representatives] – unless you are doing the work of persuading people who maybe are not automatically on your side. So, I went out looking for hope and optimism in our politics and I found it in these really unlikely places – people doing the hard work of rebuilding these structural problems that had gotten bugs put in them.

Julian Zelizer, Professor of History and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton : Is there top down support in the stories you saw, from either funders or from the Democratic Party, or are they kind of operating on their own, once again disconnected from a party that’s not seeing this as central?

David Daley: I think it started on its own, and I think that some funding has flown into it since then. I mean, if you look at Katie Fahey and what happened in Michigan, there was, I think, a lot of reluctance to fund them at all because people thought that Michigan was where good ideas went to die and it was such an expensive state to try to operate in. I don’t think they had a lot of support until they got on the ballot and then until the supreme court there allowed them to stay on the ballot, and then I think you saw some of the national money come in – largely foundation money or kind of good government money…others are just citizen groups that got moving and found each other.

Sam Wang: It strikes me that it’s a bit of a tightrope: on the one hand fighting for structural reform, on the other hand bringing it into people’s lives without making it into a partisan food fight.

Julian Zelizer: I’m curious what you’ve found in terms of what motivates people… in all the different people you’ve traveled with and encountered, what’s motivating them to get out of their house and to talk about structural reform as opposed to other kinds of high-profile issues?

David Daley: …I think that there’s more awareness among regular Americans than folks imagine about the connection between structural reform and the broken dysfunction of our politics. Congressman Sarbanes said this to me…He said that Democrats in 2016, 2018 would be out having town halls and they’d be giving their presentations, and they could feel that the room wasn’t with them when they talked about how they were going to fix healthcare and increase the minimum wage and all of these litany of policy proposals, and in the questions, it came out that people didn’t think it could get done because of the brokenness and the gridlock and gerrymandering and sort of all of these structural problems. And he said once they started talking about the structural problems, the room started nodding along, people started bobbing their heads, and they realized “Ok, people sort of get this, in a really profound way.”

59 million Americans right now live in a state in which one or both chambers of their state legislature is controlled by the party that won fewer votes in 2018 – that’s one in five of us. So, if you Live in Michigan, if you live in Pennsylvania, Ohio –

Sam Wang: Wisconsin.

David Daley: -Wisconsin, you understand the impact of gerrymandering firsthand. You’ve lived with it for the last decade. You’ve seen how it drives policy to the extremes, you’ve seen how it means that your votes don’t count the way that they perhaps used to, you don’t have competitive elections all the way down to your state legislature, and I think people have, sort of, come to really understand that this is a huge problem, and that it was incumbent on them to do something about it. The courts slammed the door, and the politicians were not going to fix the process that kept them in office. It was up to the people to do this…if people wanted to get anything done, they had no choice but to take it into their own hands.

David Daley: If we want to focus on the half step backwards in all of these states, we can. But there’s also been a couple of steps ahead. The history of voting rights in this country is not a straight line towards progress…it’s a story of progress and retrenchment, sometimes all at once…Dr. King talked about the moral arc of the universe being long but bending towards justice – it doesn’t bend towards justice by itself.

Sam Wang: Right, you gotta bend it.

David Daley: It only bends when all of us grab it, and what happened in 2018 is that people grabbed it.

David Daley: In many ways, this is a war between voters and their elected representatives.

Politics for the People Zoom Call

with Author David Daley

Sunday, May 31st


Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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