USC Schwarzenegger Institute launches Fair Maps Incubator to encourage electoral successes against gerrymandering

January 15, 2019

By Matthew Kredell

Gov. Schwarzenegger noted that California’s effort at redistricting reform in 2008 is an example to other states. (Photo by Ron Murray)

Stating that redistricting reform has reached the mainstream, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy convened the Terminate Gerrymandering Summit on Jan. 10 at the University of Southern California. The summit brought together campaigners, academics and redistricting commissioners to celebrate the victories of the 2018 midterm elections and encourage efforts to put the power of drawing district lines in the hands of the people in a majority of states by 2020.

To support those efforts, the Schwarzenegger Institute announced the launch of fairmapsincubator.org, a one-stop shop for future reformers to learn how to design their campaigns from previous successes, including the ballot initiatives passed in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah last November.

“Today we are at a tipping point,” said former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, leading off the Terminate Gerrymandering Summit. (Photo by Ron Murray)

“Today we are at a tipping point,” Schwarzenegger said. “Voters around the country are more and more rejecting the 200-year-old scam of politicians drawing their own district lines. In boxing terms, gerrymandering is up against the ropes; in movie terms they’re dying at the box office; in body building terms they’re losing their pump.”

The USC Schwarzenegger Institute is housed within the USC Price School of Public Policy. Dean Jack H. Knott commented on the harm gerrymandering does to good governance on a global scale, including in Malaysia and Hungary, as well as its historical use to suppress African American voters in the U.S.

“Simply put, gerrymandering is a threat to democracy, and not just in the United States,” Knott said. “It is a barely disguised tool of voter suppression around the world.”

Andrew Claster, deputy chief analytics officer for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, talked about the data analytics and polling behind the successful redistricting ballot initiatives in the four states. Colorado won with 71 percent of the vote, Michigan 61 percent, Missouri 62 percent, and Utah squeaked by with 50.3 percent.

He noted that the path to victory in all four states was to receive between 70 and 80 percent of the votes from Democrats, more Republicans than the opponents got from Democrats, and a large majority of independents. He noted that messaging that resonated with voters included “we the people,” “voters should pick their elected officials, not the other way around,” and the idea that it’s a conflict of interest for politicians to draw their own districts.

“I think the most important lesson is the fight is winnable,” Claster said. “If we can win in states as diverse as Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah, we can win anywhere.”

The people who led those four efforts explained how they engineered the victories in the first panel discussion: Katie Fahey of Voters Not Politicians Michigan, Kent Thiry of Fair Maps Colorado, Catherine Kanter of Better Boundaries Utah, and Sean Soendker Nicholson of Clean Missouri.

Organizers from Michigan, Colorado, Utah and Missouri discussed their successful redistricting reform campaigns. (Photo by Ron Murray)

They were joined by Schwarzenegger, who helped lead California’s success as governor in 2008. Schwarzenegger discussed California’s pioneering role in setting the example for other states that passage of citizens redistricting was possible.

Fahey credited the people of Michigan with taking control of redistricting, noting that the campaign began with the response to a Facebook post she wrote: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan. If you’re interested in doing this as well please let me know.” She added a smiley face emoji.

“This is one of those beautiful issues where you can say this has been happening for 200 years, Democrats do it, Republicans do it, and we the people are the only ones who can fix it,” Fahey said. “Politicians are not going to give themselves less power, so it is up to the people. Our experience in Michigan was that the people ultimately were the ones who were the champions. It makes sense, but sometimes you get so much into campaign mode that you forget how much you can rely on your fellow citizens.”

Thiry, who also helped draw up the California initiative in 2008, noted that the time is right to pass redistricting reform.

“The world is so different now – the fear in our system, the fear among our populace, is almost palpable,” Thiry said. “The number of partisan D’s on the far left and partisan R’s on the far right, and everything in between that are worried about our democracy is much higher than I’ve ever experienced through these last 14 years of working on stuff like this.”

Kanter noted all the reasons to think this success wasn’t possible in Utah. Just getting an initiative on that ballot in Utah is so difficult that, prior to this election, only four initiatives had passed in the 100-year history of the state. Republicans have a super majority in both branches of the legislature along with the executive office.

“I hope Utah will be an example to other states similarly situated to us that there is a possibility and potential for redistricting reform,” Kanter said.

Associate Prof. Christian Grose, academic director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute, discussed his research of the elections, indicating better representation of the Democratic wave of 2018 in states with neutral redistricting commissions. He noted that Democrats won 60 percent of the U.S. House vote and 60 percent of the seats in states with some form of commission or neutral criteria. The statewide vote for Democrats in states without redistricting committees or neutral criteria was 51 percent and the Democrats took 48 percent of the seats. Grose contended that he would expect a similarly uneven distribution in a Republican wave year.

Field experiments showed that elected officials were more likely to respond to constituents outside their party in commission states, he said.

The final panel, on the challenge to implement the voters’ vision and create citizens redistricting commissions, featured Kathay Feng of Common Cause, Eric McGhee of Public Policy Institute California, Prof. Nicholas Stephanopoulos of the University of Chicago and Jeanne Raya, a California Citizens Redistricting Commissioner. Moderator was David Daley, author of a book on gerrymandering titled Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy.

Feng, who co-authored the 2008 California initiative, said she had hoped for 100 applicants for California’s redistricting commission. Thirty thousand people ended up submitting applications.

“Out of 30,000 people, you know you’ve got the best and brightest and most talented people, people really committed to it for all the right reasons, who are in that mix,” Feng said. “I’m so proud of our commissioners. You showed the world that California and every state is full of amazing, talented people who care about their democracy and that you don’t have to be a redistricting expert, you just have to listen.”

Raya, one of 14 commissioners, noted that despite differing backgrounds and political affiliations, the commission has managed to work together to draw the districts.

“You’ve got a group of 14 people who came to this committed to being a part of history and making a difference,” Raya said. “When you start from that point, it’s not hard to ignore the more obvious differences. Secondly, we made a point to socialize, have dinners together, happy hours at hotels, and really get to know each other. It’s a little harder to get in somebody’s face when you know the more personal things about them.”

The next redistricting lines will be drawn in 2021. After the recent victories, more than one-quarter of the states do not have district lines drawn by politicians. Schwarzenegger stated that his team’s goal is to push that number to over half of the states by that time, though he wants to shoot for two-thirds.

The Fair Maps Incubator will provide guidelines on how to finance a campaign, write the initiative, get it on the ballot, identify and tailor messaging and pick the citizens commission upon winning.

“We are happy to help you in every possible way, including myself coming to your state and campaigning for the initiative,” Schwarzenegger said. “I’m totally committed to this and the Schwarzenegger Institute here at USC is totally committed in every possible way to help you win if you decide to put a campaign together in your state.

“I think there’s a great opportunity with 2020 because there’s so much chaos that we can wake up the people and say, if you don’t like what’s going on in Washington, let’s do something about it.”

Gov. Schwarzenegger met with students at the summit. (Photo by Ron Murray)

Related faculty

  • Arnold Schwarzenegger

    Governor Downey Professor of State and Global Policy
    Chairman, USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy