The courts won’t end gerrymandering. Eric Holder has a plan to fix it without them
On a frigid March morning, Eric Holder strode into a brick union hall on the west side of Milwaukee, across from a credit union and an auto body shop. The Merrill Park neighborhood was once the center of the city’s Irish political machine, filled with stately Victorian houses—including the childhood home of Spencer Tracy—but it was now mostly African American and economically depressed.
Holder had dressed down from his usual suit and tie: He wore a black fleece jacket, white button-down, and dark blue jeans. He was warmly greeted by Angela Lang, the 29-year-old executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), a local group that works to increase voter turnout in Milwaukee’s black neighborhoods from an office in the union hall’s basement, which was filled with campaign flyers and maps. It was the 68-year-old former attorney general’s third visit to Milwaukee in a year, and Lang addressed him as “our No. 1 cousin.”
The reason for Holder’s visits was Wisconsin’s assault on voting rights. The Wisconsin GOP had passed a voter ID law, designed to depress Democratic participation, that took effect before the 2016 election. As a result, turnout in Milwaukee’s black neighborhoods dropped by more than 20 percent.
Not long after the election, Holder launched the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), a political action committee that aims to unrig the system that has entrenched Republican control of the country’s most important swing states. He’d received the backing of top Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, who in December 2018 folded his own political operation, Organizing for Action, into Holder’s to give the fight against gerrymandering more clout. Now, while other top Democrats are focused on the White House, Holder has set his sights on neighborhoods like Merrill Park and on races like the one he was there to talk about, a state Supreme Court contest that had received virtually no attention outside Wisconsin.
“This state is in some ways ground zero for gerrymandering,” Holder told two dozen BLOC canvassers who would knock on doors that afternoon for the progressive judge running in the race. “Last year they called it a blue wave, and yet you didn’t flip one congressional seat here in Wisconsin. That’s not because you didn’t work hard or people didn’t vote. It was because of gerrymandering.” Republicans had so effectively gerrymandered the state that even when Democrats won 53 percent of the statewide vote in 2018, they took only 36 percent of the seats in the state legislature.
Holder views gerrymandering, which manipulates district lines to benefit one party, as part of a broader struggle for voting rights, since it effectively diminishes the value of certain communities’ votes. “There is a direct connection between gerrymandering and voter suppression, not only here in Wisconsin but in places around the country,” Holder told me before his speech at the union hall. “It is not a coincidence that you see the greatest amount of voter suppression in those states where you see the greatest amount of gerrymandering.”
For decades, Democrats successfully fought these twin efforts at disenfranchisement in the courts. As Obama’s attorney general, Holder led that charge, filing lawsuits against states like North Carolina and Texas that challenged Republican-backed laws curbing the right to vote. But this tactic was handed an enormous defeat in 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Shelby County v. Holder, ruling that states with a long history of discrimination no longer needed federal approval to change voting laws. Last week, the court struck another blow, declaring that federal courts couldn’t block partisan gerrymandering. Voting rights advocates face not only a hostile Trump administration but a growing number of federal benches controlled by conservatives. As the GOP’s war on voting has intensified, the traditional ways of protecting ballot access are no longer reliable.
So Holder is pursuing a new strategy, trying to elect down-ballot candidates who can deliver fairer maps and voting laws. The NDRC invested $350,000 in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, hoping that a liberal majority on the seven-member court might strike down any egregious gerrymanders in the next round of redistricting in 2021. “I don’t think that 10 years or so ago, you would have a former attorney general campaigning for a state Supreme Court justice,” Holder told me. “This is a recognition on the part of the Democratic Party, on the part of progressives, that we need to focus on state and local elections to a much greater degree than we have in the past.”
But if Democrats are belatedly recognizing this need, few besides Holder are acting on it. He is playing a long game in a party driven by instant gratification and consumed by the mess in the White House. While the party’s presidential contenders are attracting big crowds, donors, and volunteers determined to defeat President Donald Trump in 2020, Holder is focused on 2021.
Tayaveon Seals, 23, canvasses voters in North Milwaukee on behalf of the Black Leaders Organizing Communities organization. Earlier that day, Eric Holder spoke to the group, also known as BLOC.
The Constitution requires states to redraw their political districts every 10 years. In 2011, after routing Democrats in midterm elections the previous fall, Republicans took control of critical swing states including Wisconsin, drawing electoral maps that cemented their power. Now history is at risk of repeating itself. If Democrats don’t start devoting more attention and resources to state races, Holder warned the BLOC canvassers, 2021 could end up like 2011. The battle for control of state governments will determine the arc of American politics for the next decade, but it is already overshadowed by the 20-some Democrats running for president. Holder is fighting not just a well-funded Republican opposition but also his own party’s narrow focus on the presidency. “I understand people are going to be legitimately focused on the presidential race, as we should be,” Holder said. “But it’s going to be my job to make sure we don’t lose sight of those other races that are going to be extremely important.”
Until recently, Holder’s strategy was a radical concept within the Democratic Party. Before the NDRC, there was no single group formulating a centralized strategy for gaining control of the redistricting process, as Republicans had done so successfully in 2010. That’s where Holder came in. Never before had a Democrat of his stature devoted so much attention to such a wonky issue. “I famously said I’ve got to make redistricting sexy,” Holder recalled with a laugh as we sat in his Washington, DC, office at the law firm of Covington & Burling, located in the glitzy new CityCenterDC complex. His corner office has views of the Washington Monument and busts of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson on the shelves. “My hope was—and I know President Obama’s hope was—that my being directly involved would give this effort a degree of attention that it might not otherwise have,” he said.
Democrats didn’t have a redistricting strategy because, for many years, they didn’t need one. They controlled a majority of state legislatures for most of the post–World War II era, drawing electoral maps in twice as many states as Republicans in the 1980s and 1990s. Democrats were sitting pretty heading into the 2010 elections after winning big in 2006 and 2008, controlling more than 60 percent of state legislative chambers. Then the GOP launched an aggressive bid to reclaim power at the state level, creating the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) to target state legislative races and put Republicans in charge of redistricting efforts after the 2010 census. The effort was overseen by former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie and advised by strategists like Karl Rove. “He who controls redistricting can control Congress,” Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal at the time.
Massively aided by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that allowed unlimited corporate political spending, REDMAP raised $30 million, including from oil, tobacco, and health insurance companies, three times as much as its Democratic counterpart. Republicans hoped to flip 25 to 30 House seats occupied by Democrats. They ended up winning 63, plus 20 new legislative chambers, giving them control of nearly every important swing state and the power to draw four times as many state legislative and House districts as Democrats. Nearly a decade later, Republicans still control every legislative chamber in heavily gerrymandered states like Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Tasha Gjesdahl of the University of Wisconsin-Madison chapter of NextGen America listens as Holder speaks to a packed room of young people near campus.
Democrats had no comparable strategy. And when the party controlled the White House and Congress after Obama’s 2008 victory, it paid little attention to the states. By the end of Obama’s second term, Democrats had lost nearly 1,000 state legislative seats. “This has been one of the big failures of our party,” said former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who led the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005. “We have not paid attention to the importance of redistricting—haven’t put the time in historically.”
“One of the great deficiencies of the Obama operation during the eight years he was president,” said Obama’s former chief strategist, David Axelrod, “was that not enough attention was paid to legislative races.” The president, consumed by the financial crisis and the Obamacare fight, didn’t sustain a political operation that could combat the tea party wave and the GOP’s surgical targeting of state races. Now, Axelrod said, this deficiency is something Obama, a former state senator, “feels acutely, feels some responsibility for, and wants to help remedy.”
McAuliffe and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi convened discussions during the 2016 Democratic National Convention about creating a group focused solely on redistricting. The initiative took on new urgency after Hillary Clinton lost the presidential race even as she won the popular vote, reinforcing the imperative that Democrats regain power at the state level. After the election, McAuliffe, Pelosi, and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer visited the White House to get Obama’s blessing. “It was the president who said, ‘I’ll bring Eric in,’” McAuliffe recalled. Obama decided to make redistricting reform a central focus of his post-presidency and tapped Holder as his top lieutenant. Obama has hosted fundraisers for the effort, endorsed candidates in races the NDRC has targeted, and used his email list and social media profile to draw attention to the fight against gerrymandering. “In America, politicians shouldn’t pick their voters,” Obama said in a 2018 video promoting Holder’s group. “Voters are supposed to pick their politicians.”
For Holder, the cause was personal. “The right to vote,” he said when he launched the NDRC in 2017, was “a right that has been a part of my consciousness as long as I can remember.” As a 12-year-old in 1963, Holder sat in his basement in East Elmhurst, Queens, and watched on a black-and-white television as Vivian Malone became one of the first black students to integrate the University of Alabama. Twenty-six years later, he would marry her younger sister, Sharon, an obstetrician. Vivian went on to lead a group that registered black voters in the South and worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. She died in 2005, before Holder became the first black attorney general. “Her not being able to see her brother-in-law become attorney general of the United States is one of those really unfortunate things,” Holder told me in Wisconsin, his eyes welling up. “Even thinking about it now, I can get a little emotional.”
The part II of gerrymandering focuses on getting voters to realize that local elections matter and are just as important as general elections for president. As attorney general Holder explains More Important, because the power of White House occupant is in direct portions to who controls congress.