The League of Dangerous Mapmakers: Who’s most to blame for our divisive politics? The gerrymanderers quietly deciding where your vote goes. Inside the dark art and modern science of making democracy a lot less democratic.
October 18, 2012
Every 10 years, after U.S. census workers have fanned out across the nation, a snowy-haired gentleman by the name of Tom Hofeller takes up anew his quest to destroy Democrats. He packs his bag and his laptop with its special Maptitude software, kisses his wife of 46 years, pats his West Highland white terrier, Kara, and departs his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for a United States that he will help carve into a jigsaw of disunity.
Where Hofeller travels depends to some degree on the migratory patterns of his fellow Americans over the previous decade. As the census shows, some states will have swelled in population, while others will have dwindled. The states that gained the most people are entitled, under the Constitution, to additional representation in the form of new congressional districts, which (since the law allows only 435 such districts) are wrenched from the states that lost the most people. After the 2010 census, eight states (all in the South and the West) gained congressional districts, which were stripped from 10 others (in the Midwest and the East Coast, as well as Katrina-ravaged Louisiana).
The creation of a new congressional district, or the loss of an old one, affects every district around it, necessitating new maps. Even states not adding or losing congressional representatives need new district maps that reflect the population shifts within their borders, so that residents are equally represented no matter where they live. This ritual carving and paring of the United States into 435 sovereign units, known as redistricting, was intended by the Framers solely to keep democracy’s electoral scales balanced. Instead, redistricting today has become the most insidious practice in American politics—a way, as the opportunistic machinations following the 2010 census make evident, for our elected leaders to entrench themselves in 435 impregnable garrisons from which they can maintain political power while avoiding demographic realities.
For the past four decades, it is what Tom Hofeller has done for a living.
Hofeller maintains an office at the Republican National Committee on Capitol Hill, though he is now the RNC’s paid consultant rather than, as in years past, its official redistricting director. At 69, he is a professorial if somewhat impish fellow (in his early days, a California House speaker dubbed him “the kid with the shit-eating grin”) who is more than content not to be a household name. His after-hours life includes singing tenor in his church choir and reading multitudes of books that seldom have anything to do with politics. Hofeller’s earliest clients included Democrats, and today he describes himself as a moderate Republican. The adjective is irrelevant, however. His chosen field is, according to Georgia Congressman and House Republican redistricting vice chair Lynn Westmoreland, “the nastiest form of politics that there is”: Tom Hofeller’s objective is to design wombs for his team and tombs for the other guys.
And so his cyclical travels take him mainly to states where the Republicans are likely to be drawing the new maps. (In most states, an appointed committee consisting of legislators from the majority party produces the map, which is then brought to the legislative body for a vote. Other states relegate the duties to an appointed commission.) At meetings, Hofeller gives a PowerPoint presentation titled “What I’ve Learned About Redistricting—The Hard Way!” Like its author, the presentation is both learned and a bit hokey, with admonitions like “Expect the unexpected” and “Don’t get ‘cute.’ Remember, this IS legislation!” He warns legislators to resist the urge to overindulge, to snatch up every desirable precinct within reach, when drawing their own districts.
But Hofeller’s helpful tips give way to the sinister warnings of a gimlet-eyed, semi-clandestine political operative: “Make sure your security is real.” “Make sure your computer is in a PRIVATE location.” “ ‘Emails are the tool of the devil.’ Use personal contact or a safe phone!” “Don’t reveal more than necessary.” “BEWARE of non-partisan, or bi-partisan, staff bearing gifts. They probably are not your friends.”
Be discreet. Plan ahead. Follow the law. Don’t overreach. Tom Hofeller relishes the blood sport of redistricting, but there is a responsible way—as Hofeller himself demonstrated this past cycle in the artful (if baldly partisan) redrawing of North Carolina’s maps—and also a reckless way. So that his message will penetrate, he tells audiences horror stories about states that ignored his warnings and went with maps that either were tossed out by the federal courts or created more political problems than they solved.
Already Hofeller has picked out which cautionary tale he will relay during the next decennial tour. The new horror story, he’s decided, will be Texas, which stood, this past cycle, as a powerful example of how reckless a redistricting process can become. That mangled effort also provides a stark contrast to the maps Hofeller helped create in North Carolina—drawings that demonstrate how in the blood sport of redistricting, the most cravenly political results are won with calculating prudence.
As the election returns rolled in on the evening of November 2, 2010, Hofeller had already started gearing up for the next round of redistricting. “I’m sitting and watching, less interested than many in the congressional races,” he recalled. “I’m the one saying ‘Okay, so we won Congress. The question is, are we going to keep it?’ And then what I see is that we gained 700 state legislative seats. The night just kept getting better and better. Things happened in some states”—in terms of controlling whole legislative bodies—“that we never expected. Alabama! North Carolina!”
It seemed like Reconstruction all over again for the GOP. Because the Republican tsunami coincided with the 2010 census, Tom Hofeller’s party was suddenly able to redraw many of the 435 congressional maps to its own partisan advantage.
Without asking for guidance from Hofeller or other veterans of the trade, delirious party officials predicted that after all the connivances were set in motion, the GOP would be able to reward itself with an additional 15 safe House seats before a single vote was cast in the 2012 elections.