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Democrat Expert Offers Her Perspective on Redistricting and What it Portends for 2022

April 29, 2022 by Dan McCue
Democrat Expert Offers Her Perspective on Redistricting and What it Portends for 2022
Kelly Burton, president, National Democratic Redistricting Committee

WASHINGTON — Last week, The Well News spoke with Adam Kincaid, president and executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, to get his take on how the decennial redistricting process has gone, where things stand now, and the long road to November that lies ahead.

This week, we asked Kelly Ward Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, to share her perspective.

Established in 2017, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee is chaired by former Attorney General Eric Holder and has as its mission the goal of securing “fair” electoral district maps in every state of the union.

Burton, a native of Las Vegas, Nevada, is not only president of the committee, she’s also the president of its affiliates, the National Redistricting Action Fund and the National Redistricting Foundation.

Prior to NDRC, Burton served four years as the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and previously as the DCCC’s political director and director of Incumbent Protection.

Burton brings to this work an extensive array of experience managing both political and advocacy campaigns. This includes managing Alan Khazei’s first U.S. Senate campaign in Massachusetts and Harry Mitchell’s first congressional campaign in Arizona’s 5th District, as well as directing several nonprofit advocacy campaigns, including America Forward, a national nonprofit coalition, and the Project for Arizona’s Future, an Arizona-based advocacy organization.

Burton also worked for Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and was a founding member of Arizona List and Emerge Arizona, organizations dedicated to electing women to local office.

Burton received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona and her master’s in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School. She currently lives in Santa Barbara, California, with her family.

TWN: Before talking about what’s transpired in redistricting over the past several weeks and months, I should probably ask you to explain exactly what your organization’s role is in the process …

KB: We started in January 2017, so we’ve been an active organization for about six years, and the reason we started that early was to make sure we did all of the things you have to do headed into a redistricting [year].

And the goal, of course, is to enable the process to be as fair as possible. 

One thing we brought to the table that had never existed before was a centralized hub or a comprehensive redistricting plan. We created it by pulling all of the ways that you can influence redistricting into one place, and then created a structure that enabled people to bring those tools to bear. Basically, it boils down to coming up with a strategy created through a redistricting lens, which had never really been done before. 

Before that, you kind of had to pick and choose among all of the different ways that you could affect redistricting and reform the process. For instance, you had people focused on electing Democrats so that you didn’t have the Republicans dominating the process, as they did last time. You had other people preparing to engage in litigation. Others were striving to educate the public, so that they’d be ready to engage in the process.

Now, during a redistricting year, they may all turn their attention a little bit more toward redistricting, but all of these things were decentralized, being carried out by different groups. There was no comprehensive strategy. And that’s what we did.

We developed a four-prong model in which [we] sought to address these four questions:

  • Where can we reform the process and make it more fair?
  • Where can we elect Democrats who will have a seat at the table during redistricting?
  • Where do we need to be prepared for litigation?
  • How do we get the public involved and give them the tools and training they need to be able to participate in the process?

And we’ve been deploying that strategy in dozens and dozens of states around the country since 2017.

TWN: One thing I’ve learned in covering the redistricting process is that every state is different from the next, in terms of how they’ve handled it. Some states left it in the hands of the legislature. Some created independent or quasi-independent commissions, others divided up the duties between different entities. How do you apply a “comprehensive plan” to such disparate circumstances?

KB: That’s a good question, and it goes right to the heart of why we needed to start so early — because every state is different.

So while we recognized the need for a comprehensive plan, a centralized hub for all the tools, we also had to be flexible and customize those tools depending on what the best strategy was for each state. And that was something we had to look at, based on the process and the rules in each particular state. 

Starting early gave us the time and the ability to build customized approaches in different states. In some states we knew that all the pieces were going to be important — North Carolina was one, as were Pennsylvania and Ohio, but in others, one prong was more important than the others.

For instance, in Kansas, we really focused on public engagement and getting the public involved. 

Similarly, we were involved in the ballot initiative process intended to reform the redistricting process and then we watched the state Legislature undermine those reforms. We had to adjust our strategy accordingly. A similar situation played out in Utah. 

So you really do have to look at the rules and the specificity of each state. Frankly, I think a lot of national folks missed that part of redistricting. It is very nuanced. It’s very different. And then even within the structure of the state, there are questions about how the process will be executed. Or the timeline might be different.

In a way, redistricting is not all that different from a congressional campaign. While there are certain rules and realities that apply to House races in general, every single race is different in some way. The dynamics of each individual race is different. So while you plan broadly, you need a customized strategy, race by race. It’s the same with redistricting. And it’s what we’ve been doing.

TWN: As you know, there has been a lot of talk since November 2020 about voting laws that have been changed in a number of states. While those issues are somewhat related to concerns about redistricting, they really are two different issues, aren’t they?

KB: Well, I think they’re two sides of the same coin, if you will. The public is fired up about all of these issues surrounding redistricting, and they are also fired up about the dismantling of democracy. The Republicans are trying to do both, nationally and in the states. And I think the people are very dialed in on this. We’ve seen this in our research. 

TWN: How so?

KB: Our research shows that voters are really reacting to the notion that the maps are red and that politicians are rigging the map for power — and what they are telling us is they do not want that. They want the process to be fair and they want the maps to be fair. They want everybody to play by the rules. And they are incensed when that does not happen. Because of that widespread sentiment, this was the most democratized redistricting process ever.

You had more people engaged in the process than we have ever seen — and this is my third redistricting cycle. There’s no question that this cycle was much more on people’s minds, and that it was on the minds of the press.

People got involved in the process, really watched what their elected officials did on redistricting, and you saw them showing up at commission meetings and being really organized and engaged. And what we did was match that energy to our organizing tools to make sure people could make their voices heard.

Now, to get back to your original question, I think what we are seeing is an intentional effort by the Republicans to undermine our democracy, if that’s what they have to do to hold on to power. And they’re doing it with redistricting and gerrymandering. They’re also doing it on the voter suppression laws in the states that limit who can vote.

It’s all about protecting their power interest, because they know if too many people vote and particularly people of color, young people, you know, people who are traditionally voting against Republicans, if those folks vote, the power of the Republicans is threatened. That is why they are constricting the people from being involved in our democracy, and they’re willing to undermine the institutions of our democracy in order to hold onto power, including things like whether the legislative branches of our government are fair. That is what’s happening. So there is a seam across all of these rules, even if the rules and, you know, the laws themselves, are different.

TWN: That said, in regard to the two states that haven’t finished the process, what’s going on?

KB: I think in all of these, these final states, New Hampshire, Missouri, and even in Florida and Ohio, what you’re seeing is redistricting as a microcosm of the internal debate within the Republican Party. You have one set of members that wants to exist within a democracy and wants to follow the rules, and you have another set of people in their party that are using redistricting as a partisan political tool for power. That debate is what’s happening in all of those states. 

In Missouri the debate is over whether to have a six-two, status quo congressional map, or a seven-to-one map that dismantles existing districts. That’s the debate and they are very open about it. They’re just willing to undermine the people’s voting power, without regard to the very large population of Black voters in the district they are dismantling, simply for the sake of having a seven-to-one map.

The same thing just happened in Florida, where you had the state Senate put forward a map months ago that was a rational status quo map. They didn’t want to go to court. They didn’t want to be sued. They just wanted to have their maps for the decade and be done with it. 

And then Gov. DeSantis makes a political play, because he thinks it’s good for him with the GOP’s political base. And he got a lot of pressure from [Steve] Bannon to really put on an extremely racist map. And that’s what he did. And, you know, that’s the tension that they are having in their party. 

TWN: Early on in the redistricting process a number of people who supported ballot initiatives intended to clean up the redistricting process expressed a bit of sadness that things hadn’t worked out as they planned. Virginia, for instance, was a state I heard that sentiment from. Is it frustrating that even after passing ballot initiatives to reform the redistricting process, you still wind up in court over these maps?

KB: We already knew that litigation was one of the tools we would have to use both because we knew that the Republicans were going to gerrymander and break the law, which they did, and we also knew that the Republican infrastructure is more organized on redistricting. And they were likely to bring lawsuits against Democrats, which they did.

So we always knew that litigation was going to be part of the redistricting process. It always is. 

And in fact, I was involved in a lot of litigation even before this round of redistricting began. We sued and won lawsuits against Republican gerrymandered maps all decade long, starting in 2014.

So we knew that litigation was going to be a big piece of it no matter what. At the same time, I think you’re also seeing an increase in the number of lawsuits filed over voting and democracy issues, because Republicans are taking these laws to the extreme and going outside the norms and the structure of our democracy — again, all in the name of holding onto power. 

Right now, the courts are the only vehicle to push back on these things because … in Congress there hasn’t been any movement on federal voting rights legislation since the House acted on it, and a number of states have become battlegrounds because they’re dominated by Republicans.

So the courts are an important recourse to protect democracy against these voter suppression laws. And the net result is, you’re seeing increasing litigation across the board on these issues. 

In regard to the sentiments that have been expressed to you, I would say the thing you have to remember is not every reform is created equal. Just because you have a commission doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s enforceable, or it doesn’t necessarily mean that what comes to pass at the end of the process will be a result of the commission’s work. Frankly, we came out against what Virginia was doing, because we knew it wasn’t going to work. 

TWN: How so?

KB: What happened was, when you looked at that law it was clear to everyone — and especially to Republicans in the Virginia Legislature — that they were going to lose power. So they put a poison pill in at the end that changed how the commission was structured and they effectively dismantled the power of the commission.

We tried to work with the Legislature to fix it, but it just didn’t happen. 

Commissions are just like a democracy. They take time, they take involvement, they take thoughtfulness, and they take engagement in order to work. 

And we really want independent redistricting commissions everywhere. I mean, we pushed for the federal legislation that would provide a national standard on the process and on partisan gerrymandering, because we do think that we need more guidance for both commissions and legislators on how these maps need to be drawn.

In the absence of that, you have to take everything state by state, and there are ways to do reform that are more effective, like what you saw in California and Colorado. Then there are cases like Virginia, where supporters of the redistricting commission didn’t get exactly what they wanted this time around.

TWN: If I can just circle back and put a cap on the litigation. If you separate the voting rights cases traffic from the redistricting cases that were filed, were there more redistricting cases filed this time than last time?

KB: I would say there were more, but not surprisingly more. While I don’t know the specific number off the top of my head, I’d say the number of cases were certainly within the bounds of what was expected.

TWN: Are there one or two of the currently outstanding cases that you think might rewrite redistricting law further? Is there any one of these you are particularly following?  

KB: Well, I think you still have lawsuits being filed, so it’s difficult to answer that entirely, but I would say that there are cases we are still watching for this cycle, and some are on a 2022 timeline, meaning they could impact this year’s election cycle, while others are on a 2024 timeline.

The case out of Alabama, in particular, is going to be really important. And there are lawsuits in Texas that are very interesting, but those are both on more of a 2024 timeline.

[Editor’s Note: The Alabama case is Caster v. Merrill. A federal district court in Alabama enjoined the state from using the enacted congressional map after determining that plaintiffs, supported by the NDRC’s 501(c)(3) and the National Redistricting Foundation, were likely to succeed in proving that the map dilutes the voting power of the state’s Black communities in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The U.S. Supreme Court then granted the stay against the district court’s preliminary injunction, allowing the 2022 election to proceed under the congressional map passed by the Alabama Legislature. The court also agreed to hear the merits of the legal challenge and put on hold the lower court’s order requiring an immediate redraw of the map.

NDRC Chair Eric Holder called the Supreme Court’s decision “an ideological abuse of the court’s power.” 

“The congressional map passed by Alabama’s Republican-led Legislature is a textbook violation of the Voting Rights Act, and the lower court’s order is a straightforward application of the law as it has been interpreted for decades,” Holder continued. “This ill-founded decision will force voting in the state to proceed under maps determined to be inconsistent with the law. There is more than sufficient time for primary and general elections to occur — the majority’s view otherwise is specious. With or without the court, the decadeslong fight to bring electoral fairness to Alabama will continue. The majority on the court have aligned themselves with a past that the nation was thought to be beyond.”]

TWN: Has this redistricting process taught us anything new about the electorate, heading into 2022 to 2024? Is there anything we know now that we didn’t know when we started?

KB:  Well, one thing that I’m incredibly proud of — and that I think can’t be overlooked — is that we are going to have the most fair and balanced and neutral House map that we have had in a decade. And that is a big deal, because the Republicans started this redistricting process with the intent to gerrymander their way to a House majority. For decades, they said their goal was to create a durable House majority through redistricting. And that is not going to happen. 

There’s a narrative in the press that that is because the Democrats gerrymandered states they control. It’s not. It is because we blocked Republican efforts across so many states to gerrymander the maps like they did a decade ago. North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado and Michigan, those were states that had some of the most gerrymandered [maps] over the past decade, and now all of those maps are fair.

If you look at the foundation of the map, it’s a fair map across the country, because there are a lot of states with fair maps that didn’t have them before. And that’s really exciting. And I think what that means is that a fair House map is going to be in place for the decade. So you know, even if Democrats lose the House this cycle, we’ll have the ability to get it back. And that is because the map reflects the swings of the electorate.

What I mean by that is, one of the indications of a fair map is that it is built to kind of swing where the electorate swings. When a map is fair, when there is an election that benefits one party, that party should pick up seats. And if there’s an election next time around that benefits the other party, the other party should pick up seats. And that’s the kind of map that we will see in this decade. And to me, that’s exciting. I think it’s a testament to all the people who’ve been involved in redistricting, and it just cannot be overstated how significant it is to have a fair and neutral map in place for the next decade.

TWN: Okay, now I may just be making an assumption here, but with a “fair and neutral map” aren’t we bound to see Congresses for the foreseeable future that look a lot like this one — one in which the party in control might change but the margin of power will remain small, impeding its ability to get things done?

And I’ll throw it out there as well, could that force a return to bipartisanship over the long haul?

KB: Now, I think number one, Nancy Pelosi is the most effective House Speaker this nation has ever had. Even with slim margins, she’s been incredibly effective. Let’s not forget that. John Boehner had slim margins, and things fell apart. She’s been getting a lot done. So that is not to be overlooked.

Number two, part of the reason why I care so much about gerrymandering, and why I really focused the last 10 years of my career on unfair maps is because I do think that gerrymandering contributes to the partisanship and the polarization of our nation. I believe that wholeheartedly. I was at the DCCC during the last decade and I watched how people fought against rational, reasonable policy simply because of how the map skewed their incentive and motivation as an elected official. And that is bad for our democracy.

And right out of the gate the NDRC made it very clear. We don’t want one side to gerrymander over the other side; we want the maps to be fair, period. We think if the maps are fair, Democrats will be fine because we have the message, the voters are with us and we want to make our case to voters because it should be up to them.

We need the structures of our democracy to work like that or else it doesn’t work, right?

So I do think a more fair map could lead to less polarization and more cooperation in Congress. That said, there are still multiple downsides in regard to the map. There is still a lot to do. I think the representation of people of color is still not where it should be in this country, largely because the leadership in Republican-run states continues to undermine the voting power of people of color. So we will continue to focus on that.

There is also a decrease in the number of competitive seats overall. And that is also really unfortunate, and frankly, it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s been a lot of coverage on redistricting that’s focused on the decrease in competitive seats, but that’s largely based on the choices that were made as the maps were being created. And Republicans, in particular, made their maps much less competitive.

Look at Texas, for example. Texas has zero competitive seats. Zero. That is manipulation. That is not reflective of the voters in Texas. So they, those who oversaw the mapmaking process, did that on purpose. Their strategy was to shore up Republicans. And they did that by making seats less competitive. 

We think that if there were fair maps in every single state, you would see a 40% increase in the number of competitive seats in this country. And that is really what you need to get to if you really want to see a decrease in the polarization we currently see in Washington … because you need people in Congress who understand that the voters are going to hold them accountable for their choices. And if they don’t do right by the voters, they will lose their job. 

That’s when I think we’ll see a governing Congress again. When you have too many districts in which an incumbent’s reelection is assured, whether or not they do their job, that’s what polarizes our democracy. We are going to continue to fight back against that. And I think fair maps are a really important piece of that puzzle.

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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