Movie Review: Slay The Dragon
Most people get really upset when politicians can choose their voters.
Last night, I finished watching Slay The Dragon, a movie about a secretive redistricting process hatched by the GOP in 2008 and brought to fruition in 2010. It is also a story about what people are doing to stop politicians from being able to choose their own voters. The star of that story is Katie Fahey, a 20-something political neophyte who organized the will of the people in Michigan to help end the practice of gerrymandering in the state where she lives.
Slay The Dragon is mindblowing in scope and approach. I had heard about gerrymandering before and had a superficial understanding of it. That’s what attracted me to the movie. I knew that most of the seats in the United States Congress and Statehouses were “safe seats”, but I had no idea how bad it was until I watched this movie. In one sitting I learned more about gerrymandering that I had ever known before. This movie is a red pill for that knowledge.
What surprised me the most was the segment about how secretive Republicans in the Wisconsin statehouse were about drawing the maps. They had completely removed the process from the statehouse to an office in a building across the street. If ever there was a red flag, that was it. It was so secretive that there was a court fight for the documents and some hard drives. Forensic scientists were able to recover deleted files from those drives.
More interestingly though, was the way they used big data to draft scenarios based on the shape of district lines. Like a CAD machine, the GOP was able to design districts in such a way as to ensure a majority in the statehouse without a majority of votes in the state. We’ve seen this in several states where the party with a minority of voters still managed to secure a majority of seats in the statehouse. In the 2010s, the GOP secured majorities in many statehouses across the country by the way they drew the district lines.
One of the points emphasized in the movie was that Republicans could see the demographic trends were not favoring them over time. They knew that as the country becomes browner, their prospects grew dimmer. That was the motivation for the REDMAP project. The GOP wanted to ensure that they had a voice and that they were not relegated to permanent minority status. But if that’s what happens to the GOP after what they did in the last decade, I don’t think I’d mind. Their voice should still be heard, but the power of that voice should be proportional to the number of people they represent.
That’s where Katie Fahey comes in. She saw a problem in how the GOP members of the Michigan legislature were choosing their voters and ignoring the will of the majority of the people. She saw a need for change and posted a message on Facebook, asking people to work with her to take on gerrymandering in her state. According to Wikipedia:
Fahey, an independent voter, became concerned about the country’s increasing political polarization during the 2016 election season. Gerrymandering was an issue she believed most people could agree on regardless of their political party. Shortly after the November election, she posted a message on Facebook: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan. If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.” Dozens of people responded and formed a citizens group called Voters Not Politicians (VNP).
In the span of two years, Fahey was able to organize and execute a political campaign with no prior political experience to put a measure on the ballot in her state and win. With help from thousands of people who came out of the woodwork, Proposition 2, the measure that created a state redistricting commission for Michigan, survived to win a pre-election court challenge to keep it off the ballot, a well-organized PR machine aimed at it, and a case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court and was remanded back to the state court to prevail. At least in her state, the politicians in the statehouse have lost the power to choose their voters.
The movie flows well from a national perspective to a state-level perspective in Katie Fahey’s story. We hear from both sides in the movie, but mostly, we hear about the peril we invite when we give politicians the power to choose their own voters. It was worth $7 to rent from Google Play for I know that some of that money will go towards charitable causes that support the notion that politicians should not be choosing their voters.
After the movie, I did some research and found that the number of states with redistricting commissions has been growing. In 2018 alone, 5 states adopted measures that removed the power of politicians to choose their own voters. I am hopeful that such measures will have a measurable impact on the outcomes of elections to come.
I am not so hopeful about 2020, though, because I know that Republicans stand a better chance of winning seats based on districts they drew for themselves in many states. I have to wonder how someone comes into politics swearing an oath to do the will of the people, and then decide that it would be really cool if his seat were made safe.
The safe seats we see in our Congress and our statehouses today have divided the country. We live in a country that is run by politicians who cannot be held accountable for the outcomes that their public policy choices produce. We are divided between the people with power and the people without. But there is a funny thing about the will of the people, it will always seek expression and find a way to be expressed. Katie Fahey is a great example of how that can happen, and that makes me an optimist for today.