Q&A With Jeff Reichert director of the new documentary ‘Gerrymandering'

There’s a powerful consequence of the midterm election that won’t be felt for months but will affect the political process for years to come.

In the new documentary “Gerrymandering,” director Jeff Reichert starts the conversation on the once-a-decade process of congressional redistricting by looking at California, where voters may decide Tuesday to be one of the first states to empower an independent panel to draw the new district lines. 

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Californians for Fair Redistricting, a pro-reform group, mailed approximately 600,000 California voters a free copy of the film, which opened Friday at Washington’s West End Cinema and previously in theaters in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Bill Mundell, director of ZBB Energy and director of Californians for Fair Redistricting, produced the documentary.

The usually inside-baseball issue of redrawing district lines has received more scrutiny since the colorful mid-decade episode in Texas that ended with five Democratic House members losing their seats in 2004. Then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) led a partisan power-grab that rewrote the lines to favor his party. The latest redistricting, which is tied to the decennial U.S. Census, will begin next year.

Gerrymandering — the idea of redrawing district lines in funny shapes to benefit a party or incumbents, or to produce a particular election outcome — is as old as the country itself. Elbridge Gerry, who went on to become the nation’s fifth vice president, gave the term its name while Massachusetts governor. Earlier, Patrick Henry used the process to rewrite Virginia’s districts to try to keep James Madison out of Congress.

While other developed democracies such as Great Britain and Canada have reformed their systems and set up independent commissions to take the power of redrawing the lines out of lawmakers’ hands, the United States has lagged behind. Iowa is an exception; it uses an independent system to create competitive races in both Congress and its State Legislature.

Yet the tide has been turning in California. In 2008, the state passed an initiative, backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), that created an independent commission to draw lines for the State Legislature and local government. On Tuesday the state’s voters will decide whether to grant the commission the power to draw federal congressional lines. California politicians are fighting it and are instead backing another proposition that would unravel the 2008 initiative and prevent the commission from controlling the drawing of federal lines as well.

The Hill talked with Reichert about his thoughts on the redistricting process and the film.

Q: Why did you decide to take on the challenge of explaining the inside-baseball political issue of gerrymandering through film?

I first heard about it in the Texas case in 2003 … you can go your whole life and not know about what redistricting means. It wasn’t until a few years later that it popped up in my consciousness again. [Lawmakers] use a district for certain reasons and to produce certain kinds of ends. If you change the map of the state, it affects all the district, state and county officials — everything up and down the political food chain. I think there’s a lot of power in how the lines are drawn, and I think that’s really fascinating.

Q: Do you think that all gerrymandering is bad for democracy?

The question of racial redistricting is really thorny. If you start out by saying that gerrymandering is a pejorative, then you have to come back at some point and concede there’s actually ways in which it works … there are some upsides. I do think that the redistricting process [as it stands now] has had a positive impact on electing more minorities to Congress.

What I love about the redistricting process is it’s all about these different kinds of tradeoffs. … Some people say, “Let the computers do it,” and that’s nice, on the face of it. The districts would have nice, straight lines. But if you look at the impact that would have on communities … you can’t tell a computer where a community is. It’s all about the balance of finding the right mix.

Q: The film has a lot of exclusive footage of Schwarzenegger and his initiative effort in 2008. How did you get so much access to Schwarzenegger?

I didn’t know what we would get when we were first shooting. I talked to Kathy [Feng at Common Cause, a leader in the redistricting reform effort in California] and the governor’s people about what they were doing. I found that there were all these weird detours and tiny stories [across the country about the redistricting process]. I knew if you didn’t give them a forum, the movie wouldn’t really be watchable. I thought, let’s use the Proposition 11 stuff and make a little campaign movie — with an unknown outcome [of whether the proposition passes or not] … something to wait for in the end. It helps glue it all together.

I talked to Schwarzenegger’s political advisers and they really liked the idea.

Q: What about Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who opposes redistricting reform and had opposed the 2008 initiative, managing to help exempt federal candidates from being subject to it? Did you try to talk to her for the film?

Absolutely. We tried to talk to Nancy Pelosi … we sent letters to her office and called and heard nothing back. There was only one sitting congressman in the film, Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), because this is really his issue and he feels really passionate about it. But we reached out to tons of members of Congress. A lot of Blue Dogs said they would sit down with us, but the day we were shooting in Washington, there was a big climate-change vote and a lot of them couldn’t break free.

Q: Which countries have reformed their redistricting process?

We are really the only advanced democracy that still operates under the old system. The British have reformed their system, and the Canadians and the Australians. In our system as it stands, members come to D.C. representing their parties first and their voters second.