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'Slay The Dragon' Filmmakers Dig Into The Evolution Of Gerrymandering


With everything that's been happening this year, it might be easy to forget that 2020 is also a census year. That's important politically because census data determine, among other things, how congressional districts are redrawn. A new documentary looks at how the process known as gerrymandering has been used to redraw congressional districts in a way that effectively disenfranchises certain voters in key states like Wisconsin and Michigan.

The film is called "Slay The Dragon." And we spoke to its directors, Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman. Durrance told me that while gerrymandering is a centuries-old practice, the way it's been carried out recently has changed.

CHRIS DURRANCE: What's happened is that although Democrats and Republicans used to do it in equal measure, in the last census in 2010, we had something very different. And it was one party - it happened to be the Republicans - that instituted a policy they called Project REDMAP, which was basically, as it says, turning the map red. And they really supercharged this old process and decided to use it as a national strategy to just not only take power but hold it for 10 years.

And that's what they did. It was very cost-effective, very cheap. It gave them a huge amount of power in Congress and in state capitols. And this really upended politics in the U.S. It's one of the reasons why we're so polarized, I think.

PFEIFFER: And I want to go into more detail about that eventually. But to give our listeners a sense of just how contorted some of these districts can be, there's a scene in your film where there's a group meeting where someone has visual aids showing gerrymandered districts. They look like puzzle pieces. One could be shaped like a dragon. Others have names like mustache and praying mantis - you know, kind of silly, kind of funny. But what are the real-world consequences of these intentionally contorted shapes of voting districts?

BARAK GOODMAN: Sure. This is Barak. The goal of drawing these districts the way they do is to disenfranchise or diminish the power of one party's voters versus another. And they do this by either packing them, corralling them into one small district and therefore diminishing their power everywhere else, or spreading them out. But in either case, the point is to effectively disenfranchise that party's votes. And so it might look humorous. It might be kind of whimsical in one sense. But it's devastating in terms of democracy.

PFEIFFER: You know, as old as gerrymandering is, your film shows how it has gotten much more sophisticated due to ultramodern data gathering. Here's a clip from author David Daly on how gerrymandering has evolved technologically.


DAVID DALEY: Gerrymandering from 1788 through 2000 is in its minor leagues. In 2010, gerrymandering jumps straight into its steroids era. Big data and big technology emerge in such a way that you can carve more precise gerrymanders than ever.

PFEIFFER: Just how precisely can you gerrymander?

GOODMAN: Sacha, nowadays, with the amount of data that's available on all of us from the sort of trail we leave with our purchasing decisions and our voting decisions and our - all of our decisions, map-drawers can acquire this data and know very precisely how we vote individually. And from that, they can discern how best to kind of move us around, figuratively speaking, within districts to either maximize the impact of our vote or minimize it, however they want.

And it's only becoming more and more precise as that data bed gets ever richer. So I would assume that in the 2021 redistricting cycle, you'll see even more precise lines being drawn unless this practice is ended altogether.

PFEIFFER: Chris, what do we know about what impact gerrymandering had on the 2010 and 2016 elections?

DURRANCE: In 2010, the impact was enormous. I mean, this was a big wave election anyway. I mean, and these happened periodically in our history. But we have this one interview in the film where they talk about a seawall. And in effect, what the gerrymandering has done is erect this seawall so that, yes, you have a wave coming in, but when you build a seawall, then the wave can't go out. You can't get the shifts that should come with changing voter reactions to politicians.

So politicians now feel themselves unaccountable to the voters who put them in power. That's what's so pernicious about gerrymandering. 2016, we had a big wave election again, and the same thing happened. I mean, it's really destructive to the fabric of American democracy, and it needs to end.

PFEIFFER: The gerrymandering issue has ended up at the Supreme Court, but the court said it belongs at the state level with state legislatures. How has that affected efforts in various states to end gerrymandering?

GOODMAN: Well, I think it's reenergized efforts on the state level. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court passed on sort of solving this problem in one fell swoop, and now it's a patchwork of state efforts. But there are encouraging signs that there are real grassroots movements out there led by citizens who are fed up with this. And if we can't do it at the Supreme Court, we're going to have to do it state by state. And I think fortunately, that's already underway.

PFEIFFER: Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance are the directors of "Slay The Dragon," a new documentary that looks at how gerrymandering is affecting our politics.

Thanks to both of you.

GOODMAN: Thank you.

DURRANCE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.