Watchdog groups sound the gerrymandering alarm on ALEC’s ‘redistricting’ workshops

Danielle McLean

Danielle McLean Investigative Reporter, ThinkProgress

The shadowy group responsible for crafting many of the Republican Party’s most extreme, far-right laws is holding panels on redistricting at its annual conference next week, a sign that the group may be taking part in the GOP’s efforts to gerrymander in 2021, according to open government experts.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is hosting two workshops during its annual meeting in Austin, Texas, teaching Republican legislators how they should navigate the redistricting process. Lawmakers in a number of GOP-controlled states gerrymandered congressional and legislative district lines at historic proportions the last time the maps were redrawn in 2011 in an attempt to insulate their control over state legislatures.

The two closed-door courses called “How to survive redistricting” and “What is redistricting and why must you do it?” will teach Republican legislators “the nuts and bolts” of redistricting, including the “legal aspects, the census process, demographic landscape and mapping process,” according to ALEC’s website. Lawmakers will also learn from “veterans of redistricting” about methodologies, resources, and strategies “to lead a successful redistricting cycle in your state.”

Republicans have indicated that they fully intend to continue gerrymandering the next time the district lines are drawn in 2021, after the next decennial census. ALEC, meanwhile, is responsible for some of the most extreme right-wing laws in the country, including voter ID laws intended to stop African American and Latinx voters from casting a ballot.

“By supporting redistricting, ALEC is engaging in another direct attack on the right to vote for people of color, and it comes after years of ALEC promoting restrictive and unconstitutional voter ID laws,” said Dominic Refrey, advocacy program manager for the legal advocacy non-profit the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“It’s important to name what we’re seeing right in front of our eyes. This is a continuation of the decades-long strategy by ALEC and its allies to safeguard political power for corporations by disenfranchising people it considers its opponents,” he added.

Each state redraws legislative and congressional maps every 10 years using updated data gathered from the U.S. Census, the decennial count of every person living in the country. While some states have enacted independent commissions to draw district lines fairly based on population, the process is left up to lawmakers themselves in most states.

Republican-controlled states such as Texas, Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio had previously utilized state-of-the-art data and map-making tools to draw lines as partisan and racially divided as possible. Often they relied on professional mapmakers to draw maps in their party’s favor, including now-deceased Republican gerrymandering mastermind Thomas Hofeller, said Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director for the government watchdog group Common Cause.

Many of those maps were subjected to a flurry of racial and partisan gerrymandering lawsuits that made their way through the federal and state courts. However, in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that extreme partisan gerrymandering cases were not a matter for the federal courts to decide — severely handicapping the ability of voting rights groups to challenge such cases. Last year, ALEC created a model resolution that reaffirmed “the right of state legislatures to determine electoral districts” instead of the courts.

“What’s scary is not that ALEC is holding these panels for redistricting but they are likely gearing up for the next round of gerrymandering unbound by any fear that the Supreme Court would rein in partisan gerrymandering,” Feng told ThinkProgress.

“Likely what they are doing is they are arming themselves for using technology and partisanship to rig election maps for the next decade,” Feng added. “I think what’s going to be interesting is they are probably scouting for the next generation of Thomas Hofeller’s to work in secrecy alongside legislators to rig the maps.”

Officials at ALEC did not immediately respond to ThinkProgress’ requests for comment on the workshops on Thursday.

The reason why Republican lawmakers draw district lines around certain minority neighborhoods, for instance, is so they can give more power to white Republicans.

Hofeller’s daughter this year discovered a treasure trove of data found on her father’s hard and thumb drives, containing more than 75,000 files that showed legislators in North Carolina lied to the court that race did not play a factor when they drew the state’s unconstitutional maps. Common Cause is now in possession of those files and has been using them as evidence in the North Carolina case.

The Trump administration was also forced to drop its efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, after the Supreme Court determined they needed a new excuse for including it other than their ostensible rationale: to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. The question was expected to undercount at least 9 million people since many non-citizens and households with non-citizen members would not respond to the questionnaire for fear that it would be improperly used by the government to retaliate against them.

Hofeller’s files revealed he had previously urged the Trump administration to add the question to the Census, which would “clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” And, according to Trump himself, the question would have helped the GOP gain more congressional districtsduring the 2021 redistricting process.

Even former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — who helped usher Wisconsin’s extreme gerrymandered districts in 2011 and is now leading the GOP’s redistricting efforts in 2021 as the finance chair of the National Republican Redistrict Trust — has claimed that rural residents should be counted more than urban residents when the maps are drawn.

Feng said mapmakers are currently trying to market themselves to lawmakers that need consulting services to help them draw the newest maps in a couple of years. She pointed to the National Conference of State Legislatures redistricting seminar in Providence last June, where redistricting expert Kimball Brace, in an apparent reference to Hofeller, told both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to destroy their hard drives and not have falling out with their relatives during the mapmaking process, photos of slides from his panel revealed.

While the NCSL conference was open to the public, the ALEC meeting is not, giving legislators more freedom to ask pointed questions about gerrymandering, Feng said.

“At closed-door meetings like the ALEC conference, we know that the conversations are going to be even more candid,” Feng said.

Lawmakers “are clearly sensitive to what the public sentiment is and they are giving advice to legislators about how to actively rig the map,” she added. “I can’t imagine what they will talk about at meetings at ALEC that the public doesn’t get access to.”


Reposted from ThinkProgress