Five years ago, when first I set out to make a movie about the 2003 gerrymandering scandal in Texas, a film about redistricting politics seemed like fun--an intellectual challenge for a first-time filmmaker interested in figuring out how to capture on film an invisible system that few are aware of, fewer understand, and even fewer are invited to participate in. At that point, I had little idea of what could and should be done to reform redistricting beyond a vague sense that there was widespread malfeasance in the way district drawing is generally carried out and that, surely, there must be a better way to handle the process. To me, reform was something that would happen in the wake of the film, and be left to those advocates and experts who have been working on this issue for so long. I was just making a movie.
The work that sprang from this initial intellectual curiosity, Gerrymandering, ended up featuring stories of underhanded politics from nine states (including the Texas case) and stars the Terminator himself as a main character. The film just had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival to sold out theaters. It will next travel to the Seattle Film Festival before anticipated widespread theatrical play this October. We hope that the timing of this release will have maximum impact on the November elections; those candidates who we elect this fall will control the redistricting process in 2011, and may well be able to manufacture job security for the next decade. The calculation and intended political impact of the release reflects my own evolution from filmmaker to reform advocate. After years of study, I too have become convinced we need to fix redistricting and now feel in a position to participate in helping enact those changes.
There are as many disagreements about how to fix the line drawing as there are groups working towards these ends, but there are, I think, a few places where we can build a working consensus. First, legislators should not have unfettered control over the final maps. In certain instances, there may well be a proper and circumscribed role for them, perhaps in conjunction with an independent body, but the days of politicians crassly collecting desired voters and discarding the rest, so as to ensure their electoral safety, need to end. Second, prisoners should either be counted in the communities where they were first arrested (and will likely return to) or left out of the counts entirely. It is absurd that we still allow districts (most of them rural and conservative) to exist when their populations are padded with residents who aren't allowed to vote and who don't receive representation. Third, we need to think harder about how to build districts from communities of interest rather than just lumping a bunch of folks together (or nefariously splitting them apart) to meet minimum population requirements. This last is difficult to define as a goal for change, but to me it seems the crux of meaningful reform, at least within a district-based system (which, mind you, need not be considered a given).
Where to start? Meet endgerrymandering.com. This humble (soon to be less humble, we hope) site is a collaboration between FairVote, the Redistricting Game, the Brennan Center for Justice, RedistrictingtheNation.com, and Gerrymandering (the movie). Right now, anyone interested can head there, punch in their address and access Redistrictingthenation.com's terrific engine to see the contours of their districts and learn who represents them. There's a quick video primer on why redistricting matters that's taken directly from the film; a portal to the Redistricting Game, in which you can try your hand at drawing your own districts; and we're beginning to digest redistricting chatter from around the web and make available policy briefs that will help visitors better understand what's at stake in the process. We hope that by November endgerrymandering.com will be a clearinghouse for redistricting news and information from around the country as well as a place to meet up and plan reform activity. We don't think this site alone will fix the problem, but there has never been a tool like this during a redistricting cycle before, and we believe the site will allow voters to either devise their own solutions or join up with campaigns where they live.
I won't be speaking for all the member groups on this blog, but I will try to highlight their thoughts in future posts, as well track the growth of the site and the progress of the film as an agent of change. As long as we focus solely on electing better politicians at the expense of improving and modernizing the systems by which we elect them, there can be no real change in our politics. What better way to start than by re-energizing the populace in the districts where they live, where politics affects them most immediately? Better redistricting may not result in better policies in the short term, but as it brings people closer to their representatives it could well change our relationship with government--from an apathetic, distrustful one to the more positive, collaborative vision hoped for in any democracy.