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'Unrigged': New Book Explores Efforts To Counter Gerrymandering

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Redistricting will be coming to Arizona and the rest of the U.S. following the results of the 2020 census. For decades, there've been concerns about the drawing of districts that have benefited one party and in some cases have not given voters much of a choice. David Daley wrote about that and gerrymandering in his book, "Ratf***ed." He's returned with a different, more upbeat tone in his latest "Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy." This one focuses on efforts to counter gerrymandering. And some of those efforts were started by a single person who was able to get things done. David, did your reporting make you conclude that what really gets people pumped up is when they're fearful or nervous or feel the system is working against them?

DAVID DALEY: I think that's right. You had five states in 2018 that enacted some version of redistricting reform. It's Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, Missouri and Utah. So these are, are red states. They're purple states. They're bluish states. And it wins all around the country, with the exception of Utah where it's super close, all of the other margins are like 60 — above 70% of the vote. This is something that really galvanizes voters, but it also unites voters — Democrats, Republicans, Independents. You don't pass anything in Missouri at, you know, 63% of the vote unless if everybody is coming along with you. And I think that what unites Americans on this is this idea that gerrymandering is cheating, and we don't like cheating, you know, not in baseball with the Houston Astros and not in our politics. People want a fair playing field. And reformers, regular people, went out around the country in 2017, 2018, and they made their states better.

GOLDSTEIN: One name that came to mind, and you devote a chapter for sure about Kris Kobach, who here in Arizona we knew a lot about because of his association with Russell Pearce, our former Senate president, involving SB 1070, etc. And he was also involved with the president when it came to the Presidential Commission on Election Integrity. What did, what happened in Maine, the effort against Kobach and what was... I wonder if he'll be the ironically named commissioner of integrity.

DALEY: Kobach is appointed by the president after the 2016 election, along with Vice President Pence, to do a committee on electoral integrity. And a lot of people thought that this was going to be his attempt to do a national voter I.D. bill and also to sort of nationalize the idea of purging voter rolls if, if names don't match up perfectly across all of your different government documents. So if you have a different middle initial or if your name is spelled wrong and one document, you could find that your registration is, is just struck. And the secretary of state in Maine is a Democrat. His name is Matthew Dunlap and he's appointed to this commission. He sort of systematically holds Kobach accountable. And every step of the way, Kobach and his cohorts are sort of behind the scenes trying to jam all of this kind of falsified and sort of mythic data into the system without actually making it public. They're trying to essentially have a fix on this commission. And Dunlap essentially files a lawsuit that shuts the entire thing down.

GOLDSTEIN: Other than a desire to make change, were there other things that some of the people you profiled really had in common, whether it was belief in the system, whether it was the fact that they were fed up? Were there certain qualities that they all seem to have?

DALEY: Yeah, you know, I think the system stopped working for people in a lot of ways. Politics as usual wasn't making change possible. We talk about, you know, how on all of these issues there's a lot more agreement than our political system allows to have bubble up. What was so remarkable is... It's not that citizens get up in the morning and they say, "I want to start a petition drive and bring change to my state." It's that they realize there's no way to bring change to their state unless if they do something remarkable. Right now in this country, there's 59 million Americans who live in a state in which one or both chambers of the state legislature is controlled by the party that won fewer votes in 2018. That's one in five of us almost. Which is really a stunning number. So in a lot of these states, politics simply isn't responsive to people. And whether it was Luke Mayville up in, in Idaho with a movement that expanded Medicaid and health care for the 70,000 folks there who sort of fell in between the gap of the state exchange and Obamacare, or whether it was Desmond Meade in Florida who wins this amazing constitutional amendment there with 64% of the vote that expands voting rights to a 1.4 million former felons who had served their time, paid their debt, deserved their right to vote back, or whether it's redistricting. All of these people felt like they had to get involved and, and almost go to war with their own representatives because the system was so broken that it was no longer working for them.

GOLDSTEIN: You wrote about some Native American efforts, and we obviously know how Native Americans felt disenfranchised for good reason in this country.

DALEY: One of the most powerful trips I went on was to San Juan County, which of course borders Arizona. And I'm out on the East Coast, so driving around San Juan County, you know, it's the, it's the size of the state of New Jersey. And there are three post offices down there. And one of the amazing things you see is how these three white towns up in the northern part of the county had sort of gerrymandered the county commission in such a way as to ensure that they always held two of the three seats. And there were always various schemes, whether it was gerrymandering these districts or they're using vote-by-mail in such a way as to make it harder for the Navajo to vote. And what I went down there and saw was just inspiring. You had lawyers and activists and Navajo Nation members who for years fought back and won, finally, a court order that required fair districting down there. They also had to organize in such a way as to be sure that they could turn the vote out across all of these hundreds and hundreds of miles that only had three post offices. So I went out and watched as they tried to educate people and tried to generate voter turnout. And it turns out that in November of 2018, all of it works. And for the first time ever, a majority Navajo County in Utah is now represented by a majority of Navajo County commissioners.

GOLDSTEIN: That is David Daley. He's the author of "Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy." David, thanks so much for the conversation, and stay well.

DALEY: Always a pleasure. You too. Thank you.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.