Ratf**ked: a Q&A with David Daley

While doing an excellent class with Sue Shapiro at The New School in New York in early 2016, I had the opportunity to interview David Daley, the CEO and publisher of the Connecticut News Project, and former editor of salon.com, about his debut book “Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy,” which was coming out in mid-2016, through Liveright.

I was fascinated by his subject matter, and horrified at his conclusions — namely that concerted, ‘next-level’ gerrymandering by Republicans was having a huge impact on the value of individual votes within American electorates, or districts, and that it would  also contribute to making the 2016 US Election significantly less democratic than it should be.

Notice I am using the small-d democratic — I am talking about skewing results by redrawing electoral districts in an unfair manner, so that the results do not accurately reflect the votes cast. Daley had pieced together the story of how Republican wins in state races, led to the redrawing of electoral districts in 2010 that favored — you guessed it — Republican candidates.

This is all the more interesting now we know the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, received almost 2.9 million more votes than the Republican candidate for the 2016 US general election. The discrepancy between votes cast and final result is not solely due to gerrymandering, because the US system of electoral colleges means its a representative republic, rather than a direct democracy. But gerrymandering skews districts. Its also worth noting how far the gulf has widened between the popular vote and the electoral college result.

I tried like crazy to get this story run somewhere, anywhere, but to no avail as every outlet in the USA was swamped with Donald Trump-related stories last year. No matter — an edited version of my interview is here below for you to read, and if you’re into American politics, I’d also recommend the book highly.

FROM 2016:

Redistricting explains everything from the rise of Donald Trump to the transgender bathroom laws in North Carolina, according to salon.com‘s David Daley.

“I don’t think you have to be a partisan of either side to have that upset you,” Daley said of his motivation to tell that story of the plot, called REDMAP by Republican strategists.

For Daley, the story began when Democrats received about 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in the 2012 US general elections, yet Congressional seats remained largely unchanged.

Daley became curious, but that curiosity soon turned to anger when he began his research. Daley not only discovered what was essentially a “plan to steal the value of our vote”, he found that it the plan had already been executed. Looking to the 2016 primaries and general election, Daley decided it was worthy of a book.

Redistricting played a significant part in the election of the 45th President of the United States.

Daley, 45, lives in Brooklyn with wife and son.

Q: Where did the idea for the book come from?

A: I did not understand how Barack Obama could get re-elected in 2012 and not take the Congress back with him. My curiosity and confusion over that question started me on the path to this book.

Obama won 332 to 207 in the electoral college over Mitt Romney. Democrats received 1.4 million more votes than Republican candidates in 2012, and they only took back 7 seats in the House. Not anywhere near enough to flip back the Congress. It was the first time since 1972 that a party had gotten more votes in the aggregate and not won control of the chamber. I didn’t understand how it happened.

There is a simple truism that ‘when you draw the lines you make the rules’, and Republicans in 2010 used the oldest trick in the book — the gerrymander, which goes all the way back to 1790 — to do just that.

They used it in a completely different, new and nefarious way, aided by a whole bunch of extra dark money which flooded into the system after the Citizens United decision in January of 2010. There was a handful of strategists who understood the importance of the election year of 2010, that every 10 years you re-draw the lines [due to the timing of the census] and that when you win an election in a year that ends in zero, it counts more than winning an election in any other year.

The third prong of this is technology. Not only that the mapping technology had gotten so much better than at any time before, but that we hand out so much information about ourselves for free. It’s easier than ever to draw these lines in such a way that they look, on a map, like a crazy Rorschach’s test, but they’re drawn in that way for a reason.

I drove these lines in Michigan and Pennsylvania and a couple of other states, and you take a left hand turn trying to figure out ‘Why does the line zig here?’ And you understand it — the houses change, the neighborhoods change, the stores change, the lawns change, the demographics change.

We have been re-sorted we have been re-segregated and the result is the kind of dysfunctional government we have had in the last decade in which there has been popular support for a certain set of policies that have been stymied, every step of the way.

Q: What has all this got to do with laws such as the transgender bathroom law in North Carolina?

A: The transgender bathroom only happens because the state house has been redistricted. Policies like this only come out when the process has been fixed. And in state after state like this, the process has been fixed.

North Carolina is one of those states where the only people that are in charge of districting are the Senators. Even the governor doesn’t have a veto or a say.

So the Republicans figured out that if they spent enough money in these local statehouse races — which ordinarily no-one is spending any money in — and they came in the middle of October 2010 and dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars into races where normally tens of thousands would be the maximum budget, and they won all of these state house and state senate races and then radically redrew all the lines in these states.

Thats how you end up with bill after bill that people shake their heads at, even in the States. If you put transgender bathrooms to a vote in North Carolina, it would be 65 [percent against] and 35 [in favor], it wouldn’t even be a question.

Q: So if the REDMAP plot hadn’t been executed, would the 2016 presidential candidates have looked very different?

A: Yes — you might even say REDMAP worked too well. When you create uncompetitive districts nationwide, it means that the only election that matters is a party Primary — incumbents face a real challenge only if they are insufficiently loyal to the base. The result is a Congress that’s ungovernable — where there is no incentive to compromise or work together. Even ex-Speaker John Boehner found a GOP caucus this revolutionary impossible to control.

Also, the districts where Republicans win are decidedly whiter than the rest of the country. When you also have no incentive to try to appeal to the entire electorate, you put the angriest activist base in charge and that changed the tenor and tone of our politics. The GOP establishment was D.O.A. in the presidential race this year. Donald Trump walked into this climate and stole the party from them.

Q: Did the redrawing of electoral districts having an impact on the Democratic Primary battle between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton?

A: I’m surprised that neither Sanders nor Clinton made it more of an issue. Sanders does seem to understand that his “political revolution” will take many electoral cycles and requires Democrats to turn out every election year, and not just presidential ones. Clinton, on the other hand, is casting herself as a progressive who can get things done. She will face the exact same intransigent House well into even her second term. This will affect the ability of any Democratic president to move an agenda.

Q: Is there anything voters can do to counteract these unfair districts that have been drawn up? Or is the only solution a legislative one that requires both political will and integrity to enact?

A: The best hope lies with a Supreme Court decision which recognizes a real standard for political gerrymandering. There is a case in Wisconsin working its way through the legal process now which is clearly aimed at just that. But voters have had real success in pushing this issue through a referendum. This is a popular issue among both Democrats and Republicans — everyone wants their vote to count. In Ohio, Florida, Arizona and California — red states and blue states, east coast and west coast — voters have wrested redistricting from the hands of politicians and handed the responsibility to different kinds of commissions. Those commissions are often imperfect, but they’re a valuable start. 

Q: If big data has destroyed American politics, as you quote Chuck Todd as saying, how can big data be used to repair the damage?

A: I think we need some radical solutions. The solutions that are usually put forward don’t always work. I have a chapter [in the book] on Arizona, in which people talk about independent commissions being the answer, and I try to explain how independent commissions can be corrupted just as easily as anything else.

The Democrats don’t have the answer, they are trying to run the same play that the Republicans did in 2010, except the Republicans are waiting for it.

And it costs hundreds of millions of dollars and just means more money in politics and also it won’t work.

Q: Is that because the genie is out of the bottle…

A: Once you’ve done something brilliant, everybody tries to copy it — whether its in music or sports or wherever it is and it doesn’t work as well the second time.

If you want to come up with something that is a truly non-partisan answer, a lot of cities are experimenting with really radical ideas about voting. There’s a great group called FairVote that has put forth all kinds of ideas about instant runoff voting, and rank choice voting, where you can have 5 or 6 options in front of you and you rank them.

Big data could be incredibly helpful as far as having a ballot of 6 that we rank in order. instead we use big data to divide us and to sort us in ever more exacting ways. We could use that power to make our elections more fair and competitive and to really open up the table to ideas.

Q: Did you meet any Republicans who were distressed by this procedure?

A: I didn’t. I have thought about going back to them in the past couple of months. They created a Frankenstein’s monster and I’m not sure they understood fully how it would all work out.

They created all of these districts in which the general election is not competitive at all, and in which the only election that matters is the Primary, and when the only thing that matters is the Primary all you’re doing is empowering the base. You’re empowering candidates who want to run further and further to the extreme of that base. You’re developing incumbents who don’t want to be involved in the process of governing and compromise.

Q: What was your main motivator for this?

A: I was angry. I believe in the subhead of this book — there was a plan to steal the value of our vote, in state after state and I don’t think you have to be a partisan of either side to have that upset you and to think that it’s not the way its supposed to work.

I felt there was a way to stitch together a narrative of this that made an argument for why we are in the place we’re in.

David Daley spoke to Caroline Jumpertz at The New School, NYC Campus, May 2016.

One thought on “Ratf**ked: a Q&A with David Daley

  1. Wow! I learned so much from reading this interview, Caroline. Gerrymandering is such an overlooked, crucial issue and it seems from reading your piece that I will learn more than I want to know about it from reading the book. Looking forward to diving into it soon. Thank you, and I really hope you can get the piece placed somewhere soon.

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