POLITICS

Obama Announces New Push In Fight Against Gerrymandering

A new program will train people in the basics of redistricting and why it matters to their everyday lives.

A group backed by President Barack Obama will send experts to train people across the country on the ins-and-outs of redistricting as part an effort to fight excessive partisan gerrymandering

The new effort, called Redistricting U, comes as states are gearing up for the next round of redistricting, which will take place in 2021. The program will launch with trainings in dozens of cities across 10 states this fall aimed at teaching people the basics of the redistricting process. Organizers also want to connect gerrymandering to “pocketbook issues” and hope people will leave the trainings motivated to get involved in the redistricting process in their states, said Saumya Narechania, director of advocacy and campaign manager of All On The Line, the part of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) that will lead the effort. 

“The movement for fair maps will determine the course of progress on every issue we care about for the next decade. And we can’t wait to begin organizing when the redistricting process starts in 2021. We need to build this movement from the ground up — right now,” Obama said in a statement.

Obama has been involved in efforts to limit excessive partisan gerrymandering since leaving office. Last year he folded his political group, Organizing for Action, into the NDRC, a redistricting-focused group led by Eric Holder, who served as attorney general for most of Obama’s presidency. 

The redistricting process, which takes just once per decade, is expected to be a brutal brawl for partisan advantage. The United States Supreme Court ruled in June that there were no constitutional limits on how severely states could manipulate district lines to benefit political parties. 

For decades, redistricting in many places has been done behind closed doors, with lawmakers quietly negotiating deals to get the districts they want. Emails from lawmakers made public in litigation in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, among other places, have shed light on just how unsavory those negotiations are. In Michigan, for example, a Republican staffer wrote happily about cramming “Dem garbage” into four districts. 

Former U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a townhall talk to discuss, among others, the future of Europe with young people
Former U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a townhall talk to discuss, among others, the future of Europe with young people on April 6, 2019 in Berlin.

Advocates have long struggled to get the public interested in redistricting, seen as a wonky, boring and complicated issue. But Obama and NDRC’s decision to focus on the issue is a signal in itself of how the issue has exploded in recent years. In 2011, Republicans recognized the potential to use the redistricting process to lock in their political advantage for a decade and successfully executed a targeted campaign to do just that. 

The National Republican Redistricting Trust (NRRT), a GOP group focused on redistricting led by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, mocked the new effort in a tweet. The group recently sued to block a new independent panel in Michigan from drawing district lines. 

The NDRC has dismissed the GOP-led criticism, noting that it has championed proposals with bipartisan support. 

“I’m not really that focused on what the NRRT is saying about us or our program,” Narechania said. “We are hyperfocused on building a fair process and making sure that we are concentrating on places where redistricting reform gives power back to the people, not to politicians, not to the folks who are camped out in lobbyist offices who are drawing the lines in secret.”

“The whole point of All On The Line is to take this process and make it as transparent as possible. And if transparency is something that folks are afraid of, then I think the question is why is that?” he said.

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