By Marianne Drysdale, Political Assistant
Following the 2020 census, all 50 states were required to redraw their voting maps. The once-in-a-decade redistricting process may sound procedural and wonky – but redrawing district lines has enormous consequences for voters. It determines which voters are represented fairly and which get the short end of the stick.
In most states, politicians are responsible for drawing their own voting districts. This gives them the opportunity to give themselves and their political party a better shot at winning elections, at the expense of drawing districts that fairly represent voters. This practice – politicians choosing their voters – is called gerrymandering.
In 2021, RepresentUs launched a public awareness and impact campaign to combat gerrymandering – and because of pushback from the democracy reform movement, North Carolina and Pennsylvania fixed their gerrymandered voting maps. Here's a deep-dive into how RepresentUs built our anti-gerrymandering strategy and campaigns to make sure voters choose their politicians, not the other way around.
In an effort to combat the worst gerrymandering efforts in the country, RepresentUs launched the Gerrymandering Threat Index, a 50-state research effort to help the public understand the risks of gerrymandering in each state. The report found that 27 states were at “extreme risk” for gerrymandering, with eight states close behind at “high risk.”
The question remained: How do you fight against gerrymandering when there are few laws against it, politicians have everything to gain, and voters’ opposition doesn't keep politicians from doing it?
In the face of these challenges, local organizations and activists all across the country prepared to advocate for fair districts in their own communities. RepresentUs picked four key states to join in this fight: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida. On a national level, we hoped to demystify redistricting through creative public education campaigns. Here’s what we did:
National Public Education
One of the greatest challenges in stopping gerrymandering is that it is not immediately obvious to voters what redistricting is or how it affects their lives. Voters want fair maps, but it’s not usually clear what “fair maps” really look like, or how to spot gerrymandering when it’s happening.
To address this, we partnered with mapping experts and data scientists at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to create the “Redistricting Report Card.” Our goal was to give citizens, journalists, and political officials an easy benchmark to spot gerrymandering. The report card translates mathematical analyses and elements of “fairness” into a single letter grade. An “A” map was, by expert analysis, fair and representative, whereas an “F” map was a extreme gerrymander.
These report card grades were enormously helpful tools for folks who were following redistricting closely, but what about all the voters who didn’t know much about gerrymandering in the first place?
To reach them, we brought public education to voters' own districts, and delivered it with pizza. Our flagship shop, Gerry’s Partisan Pizza, launched in Austin’s outrageously gerrymandered 37th district. Customers from the 37th district got a free slice, but those who lived outside the district didn’t get served – even if they lived right around the corner.
From Austin, we turned our pizza shop into a food truck, and drove through gerrymandered districts and state capitals across the country. The truck traveled to states gerrymandered by democrats and republicans alike, driving through Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and finally Wisconsin, serving state-specific information about gerrymandering slice by slice. At each stop, we brought together organizers, activists, and community members to tell their redistricting stories. In Maryland, Governor Hogan stopped by to grab slice and educate voters about the state's rigged district lines.
Rain or shine (or mostly snow in Wisconsin), our organizing team brought in new volunteers from across the political spectrum to fight for fair districts in all four states. We identified local groups that were hard at work fighting gerrymandering in their own communities, and brought unique constituency groups and public figures to the table to propel these efforts.
Last cycle, Wisconsin saw some of the most aggressive gerrymandering in the country. Despite the state being nearly 50/50 in partisan breakdown, Republicans hold around 60% of the seats in both chambers.
The expectation for how redistricting would play out in Wisconsin was set before mapmaking even began: The Republican legislature would pass gerrymandered maps, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would veto them, and the final maps would be decided in the court. Still, democracy advocates on all sides pushed for fair maps.
Our team knocked doors, distributed lawn signs, and organized rallies across the state demanding fair maps. By the end of our campaign, 13,000 individual Wisconsinites had signed our petition asking the legislature for fair districts.
Unfortunately, the legislature ignored those citizen organizing efforts and passed severely gerrymandered maps. Their proposal would all but ensure that Republicans won six out of the eight congressional districts, and give Republicans an opportunity to win a supermajority in each chamber. Gov. Evers quickly vetoed the maps, and they were sent to the state supreme court.
This didn’t mark the end of our fight in Wisconsin. To keep citizens informed, we launched an ad series across the state explaining what had happened with the maps and what the court decision would mean. On the day of the state supreme court hearing, we held 16 rallies in different locations across the state, including a rally outside the state capitol.
Despite these rallies and citizen-led efforts, the court decided to follow a principle called “least-change approach,” which meant the court would aim to keep maps as similar to the ones from the previous cycle as possible, guaranteeing that the gerrymandered districts from last cycle would carry through another decade.
Several organizations submitted maps to the court for consideration, but because of “least change” the final maps remained significantly gerrymandered, with the congressional maps receiving an F grade from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.
Still, because of RepresentUs and allied organizations, we were able to drive unprecedented citizen engagement in the mapping process. We educated voters about gerrymandering in their state and publicly held political leaders to account, and in the end, the final maps were far more representative than what the legislature first proposed and would have passed when left to their own devices. While the congressional map remained an F, the final State House and State Senate maps both received A grades, an enormous improvement from the F grade state legislative maps in the legislature’s initial proposal.
Activists agreed: This was progress Wisconsinites could build off of.
Pennsylvania’s redistricting process is unlike any other state. Congressional maps are drawn by the legislature, and State House and Senate maps are drawn by a special body called the Legislative Redistricting Commission (LRC). The LRC is composed of two representatives from each party, and a fifth member selected by the other four legislative appointees to chair the commission.
Congressional maps were likely to follow a similar path as they did in Wisconsin, with the Republican-controlled legislature passing gerrymandered maps, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoing their proposal, and the final maps being decided by the court. The state map process was less predetermined, and would depend on who was chosen to chair the commission and how committed they were to a fair process.
Mark Nordenberg, a former chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, was appointed to chair the LRC, and he was committed to running a transparent, nonpartisan, and democratic process. The LRC toured the state asking for citizen input on district lines.
Alongside local activists, RepresentUs helped organize Pennsylvania citizens to make their voices heard. We mobilized 99 veterans and 86 small business owners to sign-on to a letter explaining how gerrymandering uniquely affected their communities. More than 50 of our volunteers submitted letters to the editor in their local papers. We joined efforts with former Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Dave Reed, and outspoken critic of gerrymandering, to publish op-eds calling for a fair process in some of the state’s most well-read news outlets.
After Gov. Wolf expectedly vetoed the legislature-drawn maps, the state supreme court ultimately selected a B grade congressional map.
The state has a near-even partisan breakdown, and the congressional map has six safe Democratic seats, seven safe Republican seats, and four competitive districts that either party could win. The State House and State Senate maps were an even more exciting victory, with the LRC considering citizen input, and delivering maps to Pennsylvania that were far more representative than the maps of the past decade.
Like all of our states, North Carolina’s maps were expected to be resolved in the courts. Although Republicans control both the state house and the state senate, the state supreme court has a slight Democratic lean. This provided a meaningful check on gerrymandering.
Anti-gerrymandering activists attended hearings across the state to ask the legislature for a fair and transparent process. Their calls were largely ignored, and the legislature passed maps that increased party power rather than citizen representation. Several groups across the state challenged those maps in court.
On a key court date, our organizing team rallied 15 veterans to demand fair maps in a full-page newspaper ad, and by the end of the campaign, more than 1,000 individual North Carolinians signed our petition. We also worked with key North Carolina political leaders from both sides of the aisle to publish a joint op-ed, and with dozens of volunteers across the state to submit letters to the editor, making their case for fair maps.
In the end, the court saw the maps for what they were – an extreme partisan gerrymander – and the maps were overturned. Like in Wisconsin, we launched a series of ads throughout the court process to keep citizens informed. North Carolina, previously seen as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, will enter this next decade with B grade congressional maps, and A grade state House and senate maps, leveling the playing field and more accurately reflecting the interests of North Carolina voters.
Our work in Florida looked a bit different than in our other three states. The Republican Party controlled both chambers of the legislature, the governor’s office, and the courts. However, due to fierce advocacy in previous years, Florida’s voters passed a series of constitutional amendments that explicitly ban partisan gerrymandering.
Adding to the dynamic in Florida was the shadow of the last redistricting cycle, where some of the ugliest gerrymandering practices left the legislature embroiled in many years of litigation that ended with the court throwing out the legislature’s maps. A Republican supreme court justice was scathing in his court decision: “They made a mockery of the Legislature's proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting’, ‘went to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan,’ and "managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent.”
The question in Florida would be whether the legislature learned their lesson from a bitter and embarrassing loss last cycle, or whether they would revisit the same old playbook.
The process in Florida would go as follows: Both the state house and the state senate would pass their own versions of each map, then come together to reconcile their proposals and send one joint map to the governor for his signature. Just like in all our states, local groups had been hard at work all year drawing their own community maps and organizing Floridians to testify at redistricting committee hearings.
The activist community was pleasantly surprised to find that the senate-passed maps were reasonably fair, receiving a B from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. On the other hand, the state house proposal was an aggressive gerrymander, receiving an F. As the chambers worked together to agree on a final proposal, it appeared the Senate’s fairer proposal would win out.
At the last minute, Gov. Ron DeSantis got involved in the process, threatening to veto the senate’s proposal, and proposing his own version of a map. Gov. DeSantis’s proposal went way further in rigging the state for Republican gain than either chamber’s initial proposal, breaking up the state so that 20 congressional seats were likely to be won by Republicans, with only eight favoring Democrats. With Florida being a nearly 50/50 state, the governor’s map would give more than 70% of the state’s congressional representation to his own party.
Our advocacy in Florida mostly focused on supporting the Republican Senate’s map proposal, and encouraging the House to follow its lead. We launched ads in key districts across the state to explain the mapping process, and mobilized 252 citizens to make calls into House leadership, encouraging them to follow the Senate’s lead. As part of this effort, we worked with Republican former Lieutenant Governor and Former House Majority leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera to make the case for a fair mapping process in the Miami Herald.
Unfortunately, Gov. DeSantis doubled down on his veto threat, and seeking to accommodate him, the legislature passed F maps. Gov. DeSantis still may veto the map for not rigging the districts enough. In either case, the fate of Florida’s congressional maps will be left for the court to decide by the August primary elections. Regardless of how the next steps play out, plaintiffs can point to the wealth of public demand and input advocates compiled as they build their case.
In three of our target states initially identified as being at “extreme risk” for partisan gerrymandering, the legislatures did exactly what we expected: draw maps that sustained their own power at the expense of representing voters. Through the rigorous advocacy efforts from RepresentUs, volunteers, and in combination with many years of dedicated local organizing by groups on the ground, we successfully prevented the worst outcomes.
We secured B grade congressional maps in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, and while the Wisconsin congressional map is an F, it’s a significant improvement from what the legislature first passed early in the process. Furthermore, we secured A grade state legislative maps in Wisconsin and North Carolina. We don’t have grades yet for state legislative maps in Pennsylvania, but democracy advocates across the board have praised the LRC for running the most inclusive mapping process in the state’s history, and delivering far-better-than-expected results. The results in Florida remain to be seen, but we can be sure that organizers and advocates will continue to demand fair districts all the way through the end.
Unfortunately, there is no federal protection against gerrymandering, and the few state limitations that do exist don’t go far enough to ensure fair maps. None of these states will have the A grade congressional map that their citizens deserve. As long as the power to draw maps lies in the hands of those politicians most incentivized to abuse it, gerrymandering will continue to undermine our democracy.
Still, the results of our poll hold true – when Americans know about gerrymandering they oppose it in overwhelming numbers. The grassroots and public education efforts in these states have re-engaged and expanded the number of Americans who understand what gerrymandering is, and want to see it end. The stage is set for redistricting reform, and voters of all political persuasions are willing to fight to make it happen.