Bill Mundell is a redistricting advocate and the executive producer of “Gerrymandering,” an upcoming documentary about that issue.
What role does gerrymander and redistricting play in National and State Politics?
Well, at the state level, it has enormous influence on who controls the state house and the state senate. On the national level, it really has strong influence on who controls the House of Representatives. The classic example is the 1994 takeover by the republicans of the house, which was influenced by the 1990 census and the 1991 redistricting. Other than determining the composition of Democrats and Republicans, gerrymandering also determines the ethnic make-up. At the state level, you really don’t have any kind of buffer, and it’s only at the national level that you do have buffers. The US Senate acts as a buffer to what the US house does. But at the state level, you don’t have that buffer.
You formed Californians for Fair Redistricting in 2005. What got you interested in the subject?
When I see courageous acts of defiance, as we observed in Tiananmen Square and today, in Iran, I am reminded how precious democratic freedom is. In our country, we have the illusion of fair elections. Fair elections are a part of political freedom. Gerrymandering was always a major factor, but with computers, it’s gone from being an art form to an exact science. In the 2004 California elections, the election right after the 2000 Census, not a single seat changed party hands. It’s an open question in my view, how long our country can have a foreign policy that supports democracy abroad, without democracy at home.
What was it like forming that group? Did you have any prior experience with California politics?
It was a real citizen’s movement; part of what made it authentic is that most of the people had no experience with California politics. I did have some experience, having run for state representative in 1985, when I was 25. Californians for Fair Redistricting was what all great volunteer organizations should be like, a lot of passion, lot of debate.. I think the group is widely responsible for passing Proposition 11.
How did you decide to produce a film about redistricting?
I was approached by the Green Film company because of the national profile I have on this issue. I went out in 2005 and I campaigned for the Ohio redistricting plan, it was more than just California. They had just produced the Obama film. I was impressed by the foresight of following Obama around and documenting, among other things, his trip to Africa, before perhaps even he knew that he would be a contender. They’re also working on a documentary based on Freakonomics, the New York Times bestselling book. They’ve done some interesting stuff. I looked at the Obama film, and I had to be convinced that they [Green Films] had the ability to make a very dry subject like gerrymandering come to life. But recently, film has been used to bring very complex political issues to life in an exciting way. I’m releasing it in 2010 to have an impact on the 2010 census.
What kinds of research did you do around the country to research gerrymandering?
First, the crew making the film, from the producer to the director, are Democrats and I’m a Republican. I wanted that balance because I wanted to tell a non-partisan story. In the film, we outline the gerrymandering process by looking at the Voting Rights Act, using animation to show how redistricting has shifted through centuries, and focused on the recent stories of redistricting coming out of Texas, Florida and California. In Texas you had the antics of Democrats leaving in the middle of night to prevent a Republican gerrymander, you had bounty hunters involved, the whole works. Not exactly the first image you conjure up when you think of democracy in the United States.
I read that the film crew followed Governor Schwarzenegger around for a month while he toured the state to raise awareness about redistricting. What was that like?
I certainly participated in it. The governor is very passionate about redistricting reform. It was the passage of Proposition 11 that will probably be the governor’s most important legacy. The governor came in with a big reform agenda and lost most of it in 2005. He would have been much better off had he just focused on a redistricting reform and he would have walked away with his popularity intact, and he would have avoided the partisanship that has crept into the process since 2005. That [the redistricting initiative] was the biggest reform he had on the agenda anyway, and he would have gone a long way to achieving his objectives.
To what extent do you think California’s problems are a result of gerrymandered districts?
California’s gerrymandering for the 2000 census was both more extreme than I think it has ever been before, and this is important, it was bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans got together behind closed doors and agreed on it. It was a completely invisible act. There was no party to expose the other party and they formed a devil’s pact, which was actually signed in Sacramento while our nation was watching the Twin Towers go down. Because politicians in California are so ineffectual, voters have become reliant on the initiative process. Initiative inflation, the initiative process having become a full partner to the legislative process, is a sign that true democracy, through representation, is not working. It’s making governance next to impossible. You don’t have to look any further than the budget stalemate to see the effects of this.
Where do you think the process of gerrymandering got started?
Back to the 1800s, as legend has it, the process started with Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. He’s considered to be the first person who started it. He drew a map that someone said looked like a salamander and that’s where the word gerrymander comes from, from Gerry crossed with salamander.
How is problem being dealt with? Do you feel enough is being done?
I’ve come to the conclusion that the initiative process is too slow and too expensive to really be an efficient solution to the problem. Notwithstanding the great success of Prop 11, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on it, and it’s a very difficult thing to do on a state by state basis. When you do it on a state-by-state basis, one party usually has an advantage. Because the Democrats control everything in California, that puts them more at risk. I’m actually in favor of congressional legislation. On the occasion of the ten-year census, we draw the districts with an independent commission. The congress does have the power to pass this. Now, the bill would have to be exceedingly simple and be presented in such a way that the results could not be predicted. The minute you could predict the results, its game over. But the moment you did that, it would get the ball rolling on a massive scale. I do believe the United States will have its own velvet revolution and I think this film will play a role in making that happen.