Journalist Robert Draper says the 27th Congressional District in South Texas looks like a Glock pistol. It's just one of several "funny shapes" you will see in states across the U.S. as a result of the redrawing of congressional boundaries — otherwise known as redistricting.
"These maps can be very, very fanciful — they're these kinds of impressionistic representations of the yearnings and deviousness of politics today," Draper tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies.
Every 10 years, after the census is taken, the states that gained the most people are entitled to more congressional districts. They're taken from the states that lost the most people. The law allows for only 435 congressional districts — and so the process requires new electoral district maps to be drawn, primarily by state legislatures and, in some cases, independent bodies or bipartisan committees.
In his Atlantic article "The League of Dangerous Mapmakers," Draper traces the manipulation of the redistricting process for electoral gain — or "gerrymandering" — back to 1788, before Congress existed.
Originally designed in the Constitution as a way to balance electoral scales, redistricting has now become an opportunity for representatives to build an "impregnable garrison that consists of the best voting bloc likeliest to keep him in power for a long period of time," Draper says.
And it's an opportunity for the Republican- or Democrat-controlled state legislatures drawing the maps to help politicians in their parties and "to gut the districts of the opposing party," according to Draper.
While it's illegal to dilute the voting power of minorities, Draper says that the law allows for politically motivated redistricting and that there are powerful, expert map-drawers such as Tom Hofeller, who has been "counted upon to draw these very, very aggressive maps but to do so in a legal manner" for the Republican Party.
In 2011, Draper embedded himself in the House of Representatives to research his book Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the House of Representatives.
"I heard far less talk about how can we work together to achieve a solution and far more talk about how can I get my map redrawn so that I get the voters I want and I basically won't have to take tough votes," he says.
Draper says redistricting has created increasingly solid Republican or Democratic congressional districts, which has led to more right-wing and left-wing representatives who are unwilling to compromise.
On the origins of redistricting, or "gerrymandering"
"It's been going on since there was a Congress. In fact, in 1788, when they were drawing maps for the first federal Congress, the state of Virginia got into some serious — what was not then known as gerrymandering, but would soon be — when Patrick Henry had his arch foe James Madison running and he wanted Madison to lose. So he convinced the Virginia Legislature to draw Madison into the same district that James Monroe was running in — the 5th Congressional District — in hopes that Madison would lose. Madison ended up winning. He became the fourth president of the United States, and when he was the president, he had as his vice president a fellow named Elbridge Gerry. Elbridge Gerry had been governor of Massachusetts, and when Gerry was governor in 1812, he presided over map-drawing so radical in Massachusetts, that it included a very strange-looking congressional district outside of Boston that was shaped like a salamander in an effort to appease the particular congressman there. And so this is where Elbridge Gerry's creation that looked like a salamander gave rise to the term 'gerrymandering' that we've used ever since."
On how the 27th District of Texas came to look like a Glock pistol
"The 27th District of Texas, this is where Corpus Christi, Texas, is and that seat is currently represented by a Tea Party freshman named Blake Farenthold — a very sort of legendary name in Texas is his grandmother Sissy Farenthold, who was a liberal icon there. Blake Farenthold is not a liberal — he managed to eke out a victory. He won by something like 900 votes in a recount, beating a veteran Hispanic incumbent, Solomon Ortiz, in a district that is something like 90 percent Hispanic. Eight-six percent of Hispanics voted against Blake Farenthold. How did he win? Because the Hispanic turnout was abysmally low in this midterm year, and there was a very, very high Tea Party turnout, which favored Farenthold. So he won but knew he was living on borrowed time — that the demographics of his district were such that unless there was another wave election, he would likely be swept out. So Farenthold was very, very hopeful that redistricting would favor him. And it did. The Republicans took the 27th District. They saw their endangered new Republican inhabitant, and what they did simply was saw off the district the town of Brownsville, which is where the preponderance of Hispanics in his districts reside. And instead, they redrew the map, minus Brownsville, and into an area, a corridor further north and west that is distinctly Republican. And so, Farenthold — I find to be a very self-effacing and plainspoken congressman — and I asked him, 'So why didn't you just say, "Look, I'm content with the district that I have and I'm willing to compete to win in my district yet again." ' And he said, 'Look , I would rather have a 60 percent Republican district than a swing district any day — duh.' So that's what he has. And for the next 10 years, he is essentially protected as a Republican."
On the "wrong" way to do redistricting
"Well, the wrong way to do it is, to put it crassly, to get greedy — to recognize that you have an opportunity now, that you're the party in power and you can draw the maps — and to try in one fell swoop to grab all that you can get. There are two problems with that, as [Tom] Hofeller points out. One of them is that there are often legal problems if you, for example, cut into a Hispanic community and dilute their voting power. Then that's what's known as retrogression, which in one of the states that has been covered in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for having a history of discrimination would cause those new maps to be thrown out. And the other matter is you have to think long-term, even if you have an opportunity right now to aid your district by trying to avoid, let's say, a certain constituency that you don't want. Then that may come back to haunt you in years later, when that constituency grows so much that it results in the need to form an altogether new district that will be from the other party. "
On the impact of redistricting on politics
"As we've gotten more aggressive in partisan redistricting, one effect of this ... has been the drastic diminishing of the number of swing districts. So what this means is that districts are becoming more and more red, or more and more blue. If you're going to win in a red congressional district, then that means you have to be as right wing as possible in the primary — the guy who's the most conservative wins. And then, really, the general election doesn't count because it's a red district. The same with a very blue district — you have to be all the way to the left, and that's the person who wins. Those individuals who come to Washington are not individuals who are predisposed to view anything with the desire to compromise. And we saw this phenomenon take place most recently in 2011 rather dramatically with the debt ceiling debate. There have been studies that have shown that the people who were most apt to vote for the debt ceiling deal were people from the swing states, and the people least apt to vote for it — the people who were keeping us on brink of default — were those who came from very, very hardcore districts, in this case usually red districts, Republican districts. And so, yeah, it's a matter of some concern. As we see the intensifying gridlock in Washington, D.C., there's no question that redistricting has played a role in that."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who has the day off. While the nation's attention is riveted on the presidential race this fall, much of what actually happens after a new president is inaugurated will depend on who controls Congress, and our guest Robert Draper says the winners of many of this year's 435 congressional races will be influenced, if not determined, by people you've never heard of who did their work behind closed doors in state capitols around the country.
This will be the first election since congressional boundaries were redrawn following the 2010 census. Draper writes in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine that most redistricting is done by state legislatures, often resulting in bizarrely shaped districts, which maximize political advantage for the party in control.
It's a time-honored practice, but Draper says the process is more sophisticated and cynical now, and it's giving us increasingly safe blue and red districts, giving voters less real choice in elections and making the Congress more polarized and less willing to engage in compromise.
Robert Draper is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a correspondent for GQ, National Geographic and The Atlantic. His latest book, based on his experiences following the 112th Congress, is called "Do Not Ask What Good We Do."
Well, Robert Draper, welcome back to FRESH AIR. We're talking about redrawing election boundaries that can really affect who gets to go to Congress. Let's start with some basics. When do congressional boundaries get redrawn and why?
ROBERT DRAPER: They get redrawn every 10 years in fulfillment of the constitutional mandate of one person, one vote. And, you know, every 10 years, Dave, we have a census. And that census captures not only how many people are in America but where they are. And we're therefore able - and in fact required by law - to reapportion our 435 congressional maps so that every American has the same amount of voting influence. That's what redistricting was meant to be about.
Now, sometimes these congressional districts will move out of one state and into another state because, for example, the state of Texas will have grown in population, while next door the state of Louisiana will have lost. And so that's what happened in 2010, that as a result of what was found in the census, eight states in the South and West gained congressional seats, while 10 states in the Midwest and East, as well as Louisiana, which had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, lost seats. This is what redistricting was set up to do.
DAVIES: Right, so some states will gain or lose representatives, and then within states, people will have moved within them, so there will be a need to readjust boundaries. You can't simply run in the same districts. Who draws the new lines?
DRAPER: Well, typically they are drawn by state legislatures in the particular state. There are a few cases, seven or eight, I think, in which the states now have passed laws having a bipartisan commission or a so-called nonpartisan commission draw the maps. But typically it's done by the legislature that's in power.
Of course, what that means is that the legislature that's in power is likeliest to draw maps that will favor members of their own party, and indeed that's proved to be the case.
DAVIES: Now when these state legislators draw the lines - we're talking about boundaries for congressional districts - do members of Congress contact them? Are they allowed to say: You know, I'd really like to get rid of this neighborhood and get that neighborhood in my district?
DRAPER: They are allowed to, and they do say that, and so there is often communication, usually informal, usually not in writing, between those who are on the ground in the state writing the maps, those who are in charge of the state redistricting legislative committee and then those who actually are going to be affected by it.
And as you've indicated, Dave, there are all sorts of capricious things that will go on in the drawing of maps. The chief purpose, as it's evolved, what it's now really become is an opportunity for an elected official, for a congressman, to sort of build a garrison for himself, an impregnable garrison that consists of the best voting bloc, likeliest to keep him in power for a long period of time.
And for the state legislatures who are drawing a map, it presents not only an opportunity to help out those people from their own party but to of course gut the districts of the opposing party. And so what you'll hear from let's say a Republican congressman in Texas, since the Texas legislature is dominated by Republicans and they draw the maps, is that they will communicate with the redistricting committee, who in turn will communicate with the people actually drawing the maps to make sure that my district includes these particular businesses, which donate to my campaign, that they include this particular neighborhoods, that includes maybe my mother-in-law, that it excludes this particular neighborhood, which is becoming increasingly Hispanic or African-American.
And so in this way they basically build a district that's most favorable to them, which may be altogether different from the district they've been representing over the years.
DAVIES: Now, you write in this piece that the lines that were redrawn after the 2010 census would particularly benefit Republicans. Why?
DRAPER: Well, because following the 2010 midterm elections, that also was a year in which state legislators were up for election all across the nation, and what happened - a lot of people paid attention to the fact that the Republicans took back the House of Representatives. That's not all the Republicans did in 2010. They also gained something like 700 seats in state legislatures across America.
What this meant was that there were certain states, such as North Carolina, which had not had a Republican-controlled legislature since Reconstruction, that now had an opportunity for the first time to draw maps that benefitted their party, benefitted the Republican Party.
And so, the prediction by a number of Republicans as a result of what took place in 2010 was that they could really, really cut into the Democrats' numbers, really build further into the new majority that the Republicans had and in fact perhaps could even gain as many as 15 additional seats just in drawing maps; in other words 15 seats that would become de facto Republican seats even before there had been a new election.
DAVIES: In this piece you profile a gentleman named Tom Hoffler, a guy who's done redistricting for a living for years. Explain exactly what he does.
DRAPER: Sure, for the last 30 or so years, Hoffler has been the chief map drawer for the Republican Party. He had been the actual chief of redistricting out of the Republican National Committee. He now has an informal consultant position, but it's - he still has offices in the RNC. And Hoffler is this guy, you know, obviously not a household name. No one would recognize him on the street, he doesn't do interviews and is more than content that it be so that he be anonymous. Nonetheless is a very, very powerful figure in the Republican Party because over the last several decades, he has been counted upon to draw these very, very aggressive maps, but to do so in a legal manner because even if a particular party is in power, it doesn't mean they can just simply draw whatever map they want wherever they want it.
There are certain legal restrictions and in particular legal restrictions regarding discrimination, vis-a-vis the Voting Rights Act. Hoffler has become expert at this sort of thing. And so, he has been kind of leading the fight for Republicans, albeit behind the scenes, for the past several cycles of census-taking and map-drawing, I think the last three or four.
DAVIES: So this consultant, Tom Hoffler, when he advises legislatures on redistricting, he has a partisan goal. He wants to get more Republicans elected, and he's clear about that. But you write that he says that there's a right way and a wrong way to do it.
DRAPER: Well, the wrong way to do it is to - to put it crassly - to get greedy, to recognize that you have an opportunity now that you're the party in power and you can draw the maps and to try in one fell swoop to grab all that you can get.
There are two problems with that, as Hoffler points out. I mean, one of them is that there are often legal problems. If you, for example, cut into a Hispanic community and dilute their voting power, then that's what's known as retrogression, which in one of the states that has been covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for having a history of discrimination would cause those new maps to be thrown out.
And the other matter is that you have to think long-term. Even if you have an opportunity right now to aid your district by trying to avoid let's say a certain constituency that you don't want, then that may come back to haunt you in years later when that constituency grows so much that it results the need to form an altogether new district that will be from the other party.
So you have to weigh immediate concerns with not only the legalities but long-term implications. And this is a difficult thing for Hoffler to be able to teach, particularly states like North Carolina, which had not had an opportunity, if you were a Republican, to draw the maps in a very long time. They're eager to make up for lost time, but there are legal implications for doing so.
DAVIES: He advises people not to use email. Why?
DRAPER: Well because these emails can, if tracked, if uncovered, can disclose a discriminatory intent. If for example you're saying, you know, I don't want this district, or I don't want this precinct, don't give me this precinct because those are African-Americans, and they've never voted for me, then you've basically connected the dots for anybody who's wanting to file a lawsuit against you, saying what this is about is discrimination.
You're allowed to draw a map that has fewer, say, African-Americans or Hispanics if you can demonstrate that there was no pattern, no intent, to retrogress, to discriminate against those minorities, but if you have emails that say so, you've lost the case.
DAVIES: So an example in his view of doing it the wrong way is Texas, where they gained was it four congressional seats with this census?
DRAPER: That's right, and Texas is an interesting case because the reason they gained four seats, Dave, was that the population in Texas over the last 10 years swelled by 4.3 million people. Of those 4.3 million new residents of Texas, 2.8 million were Hispanic, and another about half-million-or-so were African-American. So 3.3 of the 4.3 million were Hispanic and African-American.
What that means is that if you actually had taken away those new inhabitants who were African-American and Hispanic, Texas wouldn't have gotten a new seat. But it got four new seats. And so Texas then was faced with a choice, and you'll recall that Texas has a Republican governor, Rick Perry, as well as Republican-dominated legislature.
Those Republicans could either sort of read the writing on the walls and say, well, OK, we've got four new seats, but let's face it, we got them because of all these new Hispanics and African-Americans, let's go ahead and create those four districts for Hispanics and African-Americans, and let's do, as George W. Bush did when he ran for re-election in 1994 as governor of Texas, which is compete very heavily for, you know, very fervently for the Hispanic vote.
And Bush, in fact the record shows, was quite successful in doing so. That was one choice they could do. Another choice is kind of a middle ground, where they maybe create a couple of minority opportunity districts and then gerrymander the other two remaining districts more favorably to themselves.
But they instead chose a third course, which was basically to avoid those demographic realities, to hang on to power as much as they could, and to draw maps that were favorable to them but which definitely leant the impression of discrimination.
And these were immediately challenged in a variety of lawsuits. They were immediately thrown out by a federal court in San Antonio, and those maps over the better part of a year ping-ponged between a number of federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
DAVIES: So as we approach the 2012 elections, what's the situation with the boundaries in Texas?
DRAPER: Well, the congressional districts as they were drawn by the Republicans and then reconfigured due to a court challenge, they are standing through this election. But because they're under a challenge, the courts in all likelihood will order that they be redrawn after the election for the 2014 election. So, you know, once again because of the mischief of the Texas State Legislature in their zeal to maximize their gains even though their gains came as a result of increased Hispanic and African-American populations, that this is going to remain an unsettled issue for possibly years.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Draper. He's a veteran political journalist. His most recent book about his time in the 112th Congress is called "Do Not Ask What Good We Do." He's written most recently in The Atlantic about congressional redistricting. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with journalist Robert Draper. His most recent book about Congress is called "Do Not Ask What Good We Do." He's written most recently in The Atlantic about congressional redistricting, which is what we're talking about today.
There are some colorful figures in Texas politics, and give us an example of a district that kind of tells the story of what happened there.
DRAPER: Well, one that comes immediately to mind is the 27th District of Texas. This is where Corpus Christi, Texas, is, and that seat is currently represented by a Tea Party freshman named Blake Farenthold, a very sort of legendary name in Texas. His grandmother, Sissy Farenthold, was a liberal icon there. Blake Farenthold is not a liberal.
And he managed to eke out a victory. He won by something like 900 votes in a recount, beating a veteran Hispanic incumbent, Solomon Ortiz, in a district that is something like 90 percent Hispanic. Eighty-six percent of the Hispanics voted against Blake Farenthold. How did he win? Because the Hispanic turnout was abysmally low in this midterm year, and there was a very, very high Tea Party turnout, which favored Farenthold.
So he won but knew that he was living on borrowed time, that the demographics of his district were such that unless there was another wave election, he would likely be swept out. So Farenthold was very, very hopeful that redistricting would favor him, and it did.
The Republicans took the 27th District, they saw their endangered new Republican inhabitant, and what they did simply was saw off of the district the town of Brownsville, which is where a preponderance of the Hispanics in his district reside, and instead they redrew the map minus Brownsville and into an area, corridor further sort of north and west that is distinctly Republican.
And so Farenthold I find to be a very, very self-effacing and also plainspoken congressman, and I asked him, so, you know, why didn't you just say look, I'm content with the district that I have, and I'm willing to compete to win in my district yet again. And he said, look, I would rather have a, you know, 60-percent Republican district than a, you know, a swing district any day. Duh.
And so that's what he has, and for the next 10 years, he is essentially protected as a Republican.
DAVIES: Does the district have a funny shape?
DRAPER: It does. It's shaped like a Glock pistol.
DRAPER: It's - there are a lot of funny shapes in Texas because of the rather imaginative map drawings. I mean, one of them is called a Texas jumbo shrimp. There's another one that looks like a bottle opener. It's - these maps can be very, very fanciful as they sort of - you know, they are these kind of impressionistic representations of the yearnings and deviousness of politics today.
And so in so doing, they take on these very, very odd shapes. I mean, Tom Hoffler likes to makes fun of other - there's a Maryland which he likens variously to an amoeba convention or an amoeba orgy. There is one in Georgia that he has called flat cat roadkill. He himself has been responsible for ones that look more or less like a gimpy leg, you know, a leg that's been shelled.
And so yeah, you look at these maps, and they don't look like a country. They don't really look like anything except perhaps splatter art.
DAVIES: You write that Republicans in North Carolina had a chance after the 2010 census and the 2010 elections to redraw maps there that might favor Republicans. And this consultant that you write about, Tom Hoffler, went there and did it, as he says, the right way. What did he achieve in North Carolina?
DRAPER: Well, at the time, North Carolina had a slim Democratic majority. There are 13 congressional seats in North Carolina. Seven of them are occupied by Democrats, six by Republicans. Now that the Republicans controlled the map-drawing capabilities in North Carolina for the first time, they enlisted the aid of Hoffler, and through the machinations of Hoffler and others on the ground in North Carolina, they created maps that will result in that seven-to-six Democratic majority becoming either a 10-to-three or a nine-to-four Republican majority.
And so it's a rather dramatic switch, and of course as is always the case these days, there are court challenges. But Hoffler is a veteran at these sorts of things, and the challenges, once again, claim that there has been a retrogression of minority districts. But by and large what Hoffler and the North Carolinian Republican achieved was that they managed to take out some so-called blue dog Democrats, these kind of moderate Democrats in swing districts, by unswinging the districts, making them more Republican.
By taking those Democrats who were in the swing districts and moving them into a liberal bastion, Chapel Hill district, held by a former political science professor named David Price, such that Price, who was safe in that district anyway, will now be that much safer.
And then finally as a coup de grace, they looked at the district of Renee Ellmers, who was a Tea Party freshman, who like Blake Farenthold also won in a recount by a very, very slender margin. And they shoveled more Republicans into her district such that what was clearly a swing district before is now a very safe Republican district for a decade to come.
DAVIES: I wonder if when you attempt to be aggressive in party gerrymandering that it can fail over the long run. If you try and get too many seats, you disperse your support, and then in a year when the other side gets some momentum, you find that in fact you lose more seats than you might otherwise have. Is this a phenomenon that you see?
DRAPER: It is, yes. When you try to have as many seats as possible, you basically are diluting - if you're, say, the Republican Party - you're diluting your own core. You're spreading it out to as many different districts as possible to feed as many beasts as possible, and that means that these districts are kind of on a demographic knife edge, and as they change over a period of years, as more and more voters who may not be what you had in mind move into that district, then it becomes something altogether different than what you'd expected.
Actually, a case in point of this, when Tom DeLay and the Republicans did a very radical redistricting in 2003...
DAVIES: In Texas.
DRAPER: In the state of Texas. And there was, for example, one area, south of Houston I believe, that they believed was very favorable to the Republicans. But over that period, over that decade, the very sparse population in that area began to be inhabited more and more by African-Americans. And so by 2006, when the Democrats took back the House, they took that particular district.
It was something that looked Republican at the time but only by sort of a slender majority, and literally within a few years, a lot of Democrats had moved in, and so in a sense the Republicans had outfoxed themselves, and 2006 was a seat that they - they lost that seat in 2006 as a result.
DAVIES: Robert Draper's piece on redistricting appears in the current issue of The Atlantic. He'll be back in the second half of the show. Draper's latest book about Congress is called "Do Not Ask What Good We Do." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who has the day off. We're speaking with journalist Robert Draper who writes about congressional redistricting in the current issue of The Atlantic. He says partisan gerrymandering is an old tradition but is now practiced more aggressively, giving us more safe Republican and Democratic districts and making Congress more polarized.
When we left off, Draper was discussing former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who led an unprecedented effort to redraw congressional boundaries in his home state of Texas years before it would be required because Republicans - thanks largely to the DeLay's efforts - had managed to take control of the state legislature.
You know, go back in years, Tom DeLay was an incredibly powerful guy and he engaged in this aggressive maneuver, right, to do in fact a redistricting between census counts and he got into trouble. I mean he was indicted, I believe, by a state grand jury that had something to do with the way he used - did national fundraising to achieve the redistricting in Texas. What became of DeLay?
DRAPER: Well, last I checked DeLay is out on appeal. He was found guilty in that particular case that you cite, but he is living in Sugar Land, Texas. In fact, I visited with him for my book on the House and I think feels, you know, optimistic about its prospects.
It's true that he was an extremely powerful man. True, as well, that his misfortunes are connected to some degree to redistricting. He blames, in any event, people like the Democrat Martin Frost who was one of the Democratic congressman that he kneecapped in his redistricting gambit as being a force behind the prosecution of DeLay - unfair prosecution in his regard - in his voice. But what DeLay had done that was unusual there was that he had looked at these various seats in Congress in Texas that were being held by white Democrats.
They were not these minority seats but they were these white seats, and they were more or less Blue Dog, and he believed they were vulnerable or that they could be vulnerable and if they completely re-jiggered those maps such that a guy like Charlie Stenholm or Martin Frost, who had been representing the same district for ages, would wake up one morning and be surrounded now by constituents who didn't know him and who he didn't know, that they'd lose. And DeLay's redistricting gamble completely paid off, at least in the sense that they wiped out pretty much every white Texas Democratic congressman - with the exception of one, Chet Edwards, who lost a few years later. And so it was a message sent, really, across the nation, well outside of Texas, that you could use redistricting not just as a tool to build a wall, but you could use it as a spear.
DAVIES: And in that case, if I recall, I mean he had to first get control of the Texas Legislature. So a lot of money was raised and put into specific races so that they could get control of the legislature, which then undertook an unusual congressional redistricting - not prompted by the census - but in effect, motivated by opportunity.
DRAPER: That's absolutely right. And you're correct that it was that fundraising effort to help increase a Republican majority, or really take the majority in the Texas state legislature, that got him into trouble. But it's also true, as you referenced, that the, you know, redistricting had already taken place after the 2000 census, it had taken place in 2001, and so it was a rather nervy thing of DeLay then to do, to order yet another redistricting not prompted by a brand new census but simply because they could. And there were lots of court challenges. Some of those, at least one of those maps was thrown out - the 23rd District in West Texas - but by and large his gamble worked.
DAVIES: So he convicted of these fundraising violations, didn't actually go to prison, he's out on appeal. Is that where we are?
DRAPER: That's correct. Yes.
DAVIES: And he thinks he won't ever spend any time in jail?
DRAPER: That's certainly his hope and belief. Yes.
DAVIES: And what's the political legacy of this? Do people look at this and say man, he overreached, don't go there? Or do they look and they say, wow this is a smart and aggressive way to help your party?
DRAPER: Well, no one's ever committed the act or, you know, or repeated the act of doing a mid-census redistricting as DeLay did. I mean that was a very, very chancy thing to do and invited all sorts of legal repercussions. But what they have recognized is that the very notion of using partisan redistricting, not just as a means of protection, but as a spear point to gauge the opposition in a way that it never quite been done so aggressively before. No, he's become a role model in that regard.
DAVIES: Has this been going on since the early days of the republic? I mean like politics has always been, you know, played for keeps. Hasn't it?
DRAPER: It's been going on since there was a Congress. In fact, in 1788, when they were drawing maps for the first federal Congress, the state of Virginia got into some serious - what was not then known as gerrymandering, but would soon be - when Patrick Henry had his arch foe, James Madison, running and he wanted Madison to lose. So he convinced the Virginia Legislature to draw Madison into the same district that James Monroe was running in - the 5th Congressional District - in hopes that Madison would lose. Madison ended up winning. He became the fourth president of the United States. And when he was the president, he had as his vice president a fellow named Elbridge Gerry. Elbridge Gerry had been the governor of Massachusetts. And when Gerry was governor in I believe 1812, he presided over map-drawing so radical in Massachusetts, that it included a very strange-looking congressional district outside of Boston that was shaped like a salamander - in an effort to appease the particular congressman there. And so this is where Elbridge Gerry's creation that looked like a salamander gave rise to the term gerrymandering that we've used ever since.
DAVIES: So if politicians have been doing this for centuries, should we be more worried about it now?
DRAPER: Well, I think so, because what has taken place over time as we've gotten more aggressive in partisan redistricting, you know, one affect of this, Dave, has been the drastic diminishing of the number of swing districts. So what this means is that districts are becoming more and more red and blue or blue. If you're going to win in a red congressional district then that means you have to be as right wing as possible in the primary. The guy who is the most conservative wins. And then there is really the general election doesn't even count because it's a red district. The same with the very blue district. You've got to be all the way to the left and that's the person who wins.
Those individuals who come to Washington are not individuals who are predisposed to view anything with the desire to compromise. And we saw this phenomenon take place, most recently in 2011, and rather dramatically, with the debt ceiling debate. There have been studies that have shown that the people who were the most apt to vote for the debt ceiling deal were people from the swing states. And the people least apt to vote for it, the people who were, you know, keeping us, kind of, on the brink of default, were those who came from very, very hard-core districts, in this case usually red districts, Republican districts. And so, yeah, it's a matter of some concern. I mean as we, you know, see the intensifying gridlock in Washington, D.C., there's no question that redistricting has played a role in that.
DAVIES: Because so many people come from districts where they don't have two worry about the other party challenging, what they have to worry about are extremists within their own party taking them on in a primary.
DRAPER: Sure. That's right. And for that matter, when I was in - when I sort of embedded myself from the House of Representatives in 2011 while working on a book, I heard far less talk about how can we work together to achieve a solution, and far more talk about how can I get my map redrawn so that I get the voters I want and I basically won't have to take tough votes? And so I think redistricting has really created a perverse mentality that has undercut, you know, a lot of the intentions of a representative democracy.
DAVIES: Robert Draper writes about congressional redistricting in the current issue of The Atlantic.
We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: We're speaking with veteran political journalist Robert Draper. He has a piece in The Atlantic about congressional redistricting.
You know, it's clear that there are legal prohibitions on racial and ethnic discrimination. Is it illegal to engage in partisan gerrymandering? If the records said yes, I drew that district because I wanted to help my party and that's clear, have the courts found that to be illegal?
DRAPER: The courts have shied away from saying anything derogatory, putting any firm hand on the matter of partisan redistricting. Now what they do say is that you can't just wantonly cut up districts. You certainly can't to, in a way that's going to dilute minority voting strength, it's going to retrogress. But there other things that have been said on this as well. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor had said in a Supreme Court decision that appearances do matter in the case of the redistricting. And thus, it said that districts should have a certain is compactness, a contiguity and respect for political subdivision, that you can't just run right through precincts wantonly.
Having said that, there has been a basic modesty, a prudency(ph), from the Supreme Court in aversion to wading into political matters ever since Justice Felix Frankfurter said, in a Supreme Court case, that the Supreme Court shouldn't even be treading on the issue of gerrymandering - that that amounts to entering what he called, a political thicket. And though there have been a number of the Supreme Court cases ever since then, they have been very, very restrained on the issue of whether or not you can use map drawing to partisan advantage.
DAVIES: OK. So districts need to be somewhat compact. They need to kind of keep communities whole when possible. But there's no outright stricture on using the boundaries to help a political party.
DRAPER: There is not.
DAVIES: Seems so strange. Because, you know, in other spheres, you know, we rely upon independent arbiter. I mean when we have a legal dispute there's a court and it sort of you don't have the parties having private conversations with the judge or changing the rules. And in athletic competitions we count on umpires to be fair. And we don't have redrawing the strike zones or the foul lines to help their side. This is a really kind of odd exception, isn't it?
DRAPER: It is. Yes. And in fact, I remember talking to the congressman I mentioned before, Congressman Blake Farenthold about this. And I said, you know, that basically you won in a particular district. That district may now not be happy with your performance. And instead of getting to express their dissatisfaction towards you, you are conveniently re-jiggering the district. Isn't that unfair? Isn't that undemocratic? And after saying that well, I'm happy to, you know, run in whatever district, I'm happy to defend my record, you know, to anyone, he nonetheless added that look, elections have consequences. You know, Republicans won. They got to draw the maps. That's the way it is. And so to the extent that there is a view about fairness, the view of fairness is look, this is just one consequence of election. Democrats would do the same thing. And there's no question in my mind that that's true.
DAVIES: You know, one of the other things you hear about redistricting is that it doesn't just favor the party that runs it, it also favors incumbents. And I've seen cases, for example in Pennsylvania, where a lot of people objected to a map that the Republicans came up with, felt that it did too much for their party. But some Democratic Congressional Representatives didn't raise any complaints because the map kind of helped them protect their incumbency. Do they in effect kind of make deals so that everybody gets something?
DRAPER: They absolutely do. That happened in North Carolina and that happened in Texas where there was a lot of give and take, or let's say input, from Democrat incumbents who had been holding their seats for some time, and essentially what they were saying was hey, don't take these particular voters away from me. But implicitly, what they were, but implicitly what they were saying was, as long as you keep my district more or less intact I for one am not going to fight you in these other districts. Because yeah, there is, kind of, a handshake deal between both parties.
Now that's, it had been the tradition for many, many years that what redistricting was really about was favoring incumbents. It was only when Tom DeLay in 2003 began to go after Democrats with his radical redrawing that for the first time we saw the notion of redistricting used to kneecap opponents. But still, by and large it's a very sort of, you know, backroom and clubby thing where even for example, I mean you mentioned Pennsylvania, but also in Texas, there was some communication between a Democratic incumbent congressman and the Republican map makers. And implicit in those conversations was hey, don't do my map. Don't do my district much damage and you then won't get a fight from me.
DAVIES: There are a handful of states, you said, in which the legislature themselves don't redraw the boundaries. There are some kind of a commission with some Independents. Do they do a better job?
DRAPER: Well, that's in the eye of the beholder. I mean California now has a commission that is supposed to be nonpartisan or bipartisan, but the Republicans certainly don't think so. And indeed, there is, once again, a kind of an email trail showing the rather successful effort on the part of Democrats to influence that supposedly impartial commission such that seats were drawn in a way that favor Democrats. But yes, there are other states where they have had, for some time, a bipartisan commission. And at minimum what it does is it sort of takes the overheated radicalism of some of this map-drawing out of the equation. I mean, there is more compromise there and there's more of a sensibility to it, in addition to which the process is more open. You know, citizens have more of a sense of what's going on and why it's going on and there's a lot of back and forth.
That does seem to be a healthy way of doing it. And indeed, a former congressman from Tennessee, John Tanner, had for his last several years in Congress been waging this lonely quest to get a national redistricting reform bill passed that would require state legislatures to forfeit their power and instead turn over their map-drawing power to bipartisan committees in each state.
You can imagine how much enthusiasm there has been for that bill, both for - because the reality is Republicans, you know, they love having the power to draw maps. So do Democrats and, you know, what Democrats are thinking about right now is not, you know, how do we create redistricting reform but how do we take over all of those state legislatures so we can start drawing them (unintelligible).
DAVIES: You wrote a book about the 112th Congress called "Do Not Ask What Good We Do." You kind of embedded in Congress. What most surprised you about the way Congress operates when you see it up close?
DRAPER: Well, I think what surprised me is how zero sum Congress has become, how little even appetite for compromise there is. And I'm speaking mainly here about leadership. You know, so there are certain rank and file congressmen who will sit on committees and they want to get legislation done. They realize to get it done they need some help from the opposition. They'll form a partnership with one guy or another.
Those are noble, you know, endeavors that take place all the time in the halls of Congress, but they are almost always without the approval of the leadership. You know, what the House Republican leadership - John Boehner and Eric Canter and Kevin McCarthy - are interested in is maintaining power. What Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, the Democrats, are interested in is regaining power.
And everything that they have done, everything that they've not done, you know, has been about that. When the Ryan budget plan came up, for example, for a vote, there was a big war within the Democratic Party about whether they should put up a budget of their own. Chris Van Hollen won that war. He was the ranking member of the House Budget Committee and thus the guy who was squared off against Ryan.
And his belief was we need to stand for something. We need to have something that voters can see that we are for. The Democrats actually believe that, no, we don't need to do that at all. What we need to do is just beat the hell out of the Ryan plan like a pinata so that we don't have to contrast it against anything, so that voters will just simply see what's bad rather than get into a rational conversation of which is the more appealing budget.
And it's that kind of attitude that I think has become so unfortunate and has created such a lack of will in Congress to get really anything done and which in turn has fostered such a public dislike of Congress.
DAVIES: Well, Robert Draper, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DRAPER: Sure thing. My pleasure.
Robert Draper's piece on redistricting appears in the current issue of The Atlantic. Draper's latest book about Congress is called "Do Not Ask What Good We Do." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.