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Redistricting Reforms Worth Watching

This is really the moment to be actively involved in redistricting reform. There are battle lines being drawn that will determine what our legislative bodies look like over the course of the next decade.
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Back in my first blog post here a few months ago, I briefly described how the research and production of my film Gerrymandering led me inexorably to the conclusion that our redistricting system needs an overhaul and that, having made a movie about it, I might be in a position to help. Last week, in the wake of the New York State Senate's passage of a bill ending prison-based gerrymandering, I received an e-mail from one of my film's stars, the dynamic Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative (who will be guest blogging about the prison gerrymandering issue in this space shortly), telling me to take a little bit of credit for the win. He'd been screening the section of the film covering prison gerrymandering at events around the state and streaming it on his website; he felt that our little clip helped explain the issue to voters more succinctly than anything previously available. Of course I really can't claim any responsibility, but was flattered to think that my film had played any small part in a reform effort, especially so far from its wider theatrical release.

But Peter's e-mail got me thinking: this is really the moment to be actively involved in redistricting reform. There are battle lines being drawn that will determine what our legislative bodies look like over the course of the next decade, and there are a host of redistricting-related ballot initiatives and pieces of legislation circulating around this fall that voters should know about. I'm going use some space in this column in the weeks leading up to our release (more on that later) to discuss these initiatives, starting with the two highest profile, both of which the Gerrymandering team wholly supports, and, in some cases, is actively working with. Both will be hotly contested in November.

California voters will have a golden opportunity to finish overhauling their state's redistricting system by voting Yes on Proposition 20. Prop. 20 extends the jurisdiction of the independent commission established by the passage of Prop. 11 in 2008 (which we cover in-depth in Gerrymandering) to include congressional districts. Currently those lines are drawn by the state legislature, with healthy input from the California congressional delegation resulting in a set of uncompetitive races "won" by longtime incumbents who have often crassly carved up emerging communities to preserve their power. As with most attempts at taking redistricting away from the parties in California, Prop. 20 has been described as a Republican power grab, even though it's being supported by many of the same folks who pushed Prop. 11: California Common Cause, AARP, etc. My own personal politics might land somewhere left of Karl Marx, and while I hope Democrats maintain control of government at all levels, our side's electoral successes shouldn't rest on shaky foundations. I'd like Nancy Pelosi to continue her tenure as Speaker of the House, but she should still have to compete for the privilege. (California folks will know this is a somewhat hyperbolic example: it'd be VERY difficult to draw a competitive district for Pelosi to run in, but the point holds for many others in the delegation.)

There's also a major reform push underway in Florida, one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, courtesy of a bipartisan group of folks calling themselves Fair Districts Florida (we interviewed many members of the campaign, but opted to tell a different story of Florida districting in the film, one that includes swamp cabbage, armadillo races and a 200 mile-long district). Obama won the Sunshine State by a wide margin, but the Republicans took home a whopping two-thirds of legislative and congressional seats due to creative line drawing back in 2001. This November, voters will have the chance to approve Amendments 5 & 6, which set standards the legislature must follow when drawing the lines. There will be no independent commission established, but putting these standards in place will not only give those who wish to challenge a plan a legal leg to stand on in court but should also give the legislature pause before enacting another heavily partisan gerrymander (though the shamelessness of a legislature in line-drawing heat can never be underestimated). Notably, the Democratic party supports this effort, while largely opposing Prop. 20 in California. One important thing to know about redistricting reform is that support for change is most often opportunistic.

And, finally, for those interested in seeing the film, Gerrymandering will be in select theaters nationwide on 10/15. We will announce dates here shortly (and regularly). Stay tuned.

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