For David Daley, it was something of an epiphany.
A few years ago, he was riding along in a 40-year-old Dodge Tiago RV with a handful of Idaho activists. They had started a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid coverage, under the provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act, to low-income people in the state who lacked health insurance but were not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. It seemed a quixotic mission: Even as polls showed a majority of residents wanted the coverage, state legislators in Idaho, a place “as red as Taylor Swift’s lipstick,” as Daley puts it, had refused to approve the expansion, seeing it as just another part of Barack Obama’s socialist agenda.
Daley, a freelance journalist and author who lives in Haydenville, recalls stopping in a neighborhood in Idaho Falls to knock on doors alongside the activists. In the driveway of one home, there was a pickup truck with a bumper sticker reading “Vietnam — We Were Winning When I Left.” The path to the front door was lined with American flag pinwheels, and an older man who answered the activists’ knock wore a patriotic T-Shirt decorated with flags and eagles.
“I was thinking, ‘OK, maybe we should try someplace else,’ ” Daley says with a laugh during a recent interview in his home. “But it turned out this guy’s mom had this very problem — didn’t qualify for Medicaid but couldn’t afford health insurance. He says ‘I’m with you.’ ”
It seemed an emblematic moment for Daley, a former editor-in-chief of Salon magazine who in 2016 published his first book, “Ratf**ked.” It was a detailed chronicle of a highly organized push, begun after 2010, by Republican operatives to rig voting districts — gerrymandering — and lock in Republican control of the U.S. House and a majority of states, despite Democratic candidates receiving more overall votes. The book, which became a bestseller, painted a bleak picture of what effectively seemed like minority rule by Republicans, in turn creating growing gridlock and polarization in Washington, D.C.
But Daley has a new book, “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy,” due out next month that suggests there could be an antidote. From the young activists who took to the road in Idaho in their wobbly “Medicaid Express” RV, to a coalition of groups that pushed to restore voting rights for ex-felons in Florida, to a statewide effort to stop gerrymandering in Michigan that began with a Facebook post, “Unrigged” showcases the efforts of activists across the country who rolled up their sleeves after November 2016 to fight for fairer elections — culminating in the Democrats taking back the House in 2018 and making significant gains at the state level.
But Daley, who makes no bones about his liberal politics — “They are not a mystery to anyone,” he says with a laugh — says this is not an issue that should be viewed through blue and red lenses. “When you put these prescription measures [for fairer elections] on the ballot, they win in red states, too,” he notes. As one Utah Republican who pushed to end gerrymandering there told him, “I want fiscally conservative principles to win on a level playing field.”
Daley spent much of 2018 on the road, in red states such as Idaho, Utah and North Dakota, and purple ones like Michigan and Pennsylvania, talking to voters who felt they’d been disenfranchised. He worked alongside activists as they went door to door in Michigan to get a ballot approved to create a citizen-based redistricting commission, one that would take control away from politicians; 61 percent of state voters turned that measure into law in November 2018.
And listening to the Idaho voter in early 2018, the one he assumed was a rock-solid Republican who wanted no further part of Obamacare, helped open Daley’s eyes to the possibilities of fighting back against gerrymandering, voter suppression and other politically driven efforts to diminish democracy.
“It was a really powerful example of how maybe we’re not as polarized as we seem,” he says. “When you just go out and talk to people about the issues that concern them, you realize it’s the structure of our politics that’s blocking progress and creating barriers.”
The creation of safe districts for politicians from both parties, who are then freed from any incentive to compromise with the other side, threatens us all, Daley notes. “Once you view American politics through the lens of redistricting, it changes the way you see everything…. Until we come to grips with [it], we can’t come to grips with all the other problems we have, whether it’s health care or education or climate change, you name it.”
That’s why, Daley adds, reporting and writing “Unrigged” has been such a positive experience. “There are lots of books out now about how democracies die. But the story I wanted to tell was how we fight back.”
Surgically etched districts
Daley, who grew up in South Windsor, Connecticut, has a long connection to the Valley and to politics. Once he got his driver’s license, he says, he was coming up to Northampton on a regular basis to visit former record stores like Dynamite Records and see shows at the Iron Horse Music Hall. Some years later he met his future wife, Jennifer Smedes, in the Valley (the couple now have a 7-year-old son, Wyatt), and they also lived in Northampton for a stretch during the 1990s and early 2000s when Daley was an editor at the Hartford Courant in Connecticut, overseeing coverage of the intersection of media and politics.
He and his wife then lived for a time in Louisville, Kentucky, where Daley was the managing editor of arts and features for the Louisville Courier-Journal. They moved to New York in 2010 when he became an editor at Salon, initially overseeing the magazine’s political coverage before becoming editor-in-chief. (He and his wife moved back to the Valley in 2017.)
It was during his time at Salon, especially after the 2012 elections, that he began examining the gerrymandering issue. Something strange seemed to be happening, he says. “If the Democrats took the White House and the Senate, then why not the House? Because it wasn’t even close there. [Democratic House candidates] had 1.4 million more votes [than Republicans] but Pennsylvania is 13-5 Republican? Ohio is 12-4? North Carolina is 10-3? That’s really weird — what’s going on?”
As “Ratf**ked” would later detail (the book’s title came from an expression operatives of President Nixon reportedly used in the early 1970s to describe dirty tricks done to Democrats), what was going on was something called REDMAP, or Redistricting Majority Project. It was an effort led by the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), beginning in 2010, to get control of state legislatures and governors’ offices and redraw voting districts to ensure Republican control.
To do so, Republicans at the state level, using highly sophisticated software that could track voting patterns down to the micro level, created convoluted voting districts — Daley calls them “a chiropractor’s dream” — that sometimes ran down a single street or in one case through a restaurant parking lot to connect other, larger areas. Democratic voters in states such as Pennsylvania were penned in a small number of districts where they had overwhelming majorities, while a majority of districts were created to ensure smaller but solid Republican majorities.
“To see in person how these lines are etched so strategically and surgically is really just stunning,” says Daley, who drove through many of the districts in reporting “Ratf**ked.” Federal courts in the last few years have ruled voting districts in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Michigan — states controlled by Republican legislatures — illegally gerrymandered and ordered them redrawn, though the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, muddied the waters last fall by declaring it would not rule on the issue.
“Ratf**ked” brought Daley a considerable amount of attention, and he has since become a regular speaker on gerrymandering in a variety of forums, including private presentations to the Democratic caucuses in both the U.S. House and Senate; he’s also spent time with Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general who now heads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. In addition, he’s a Senior Communications Fellow for FairVote, a nonpartisan group working for electoral reform.
How about the movies? His first book helped inspire the 2019 documentary “Slay the Dragon,” a film about citizen groups fighting gerrymandering; Daley was a consultant for the movie.
But in 2017, when he spoke about gerrymandering to some of the activist groups that had formed in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, he felt like the proverbial party pooper. “I felt like I had a black cloud over my head,” he says. “I’d go into these rooms, full of people determined to get involved in changing things and giving back, and sometimes by the end of the talk, I could feel the air going out of the room. And I said to myself, ‘This is not helpful.’ ”
But slowly, hearing from these groups and seeing what they were doing began to change his gloomy outlook. By February 2018, he decided “There’s another story here” and pitched the idea to his agent, who had a book contract (with Liveright Publishing Corporation of New York) secured by March.
It was tough for his wife and son, he says, when he was gone for big chunks of that year. But it was exciting to see grassroots activism in action, and to see people reaching across partisan lines to come together around the basic goal of improving voting access. In Florida, he writes, a coalition of black and white voters, and Democrats and Republicans, convinced 65 percent of the electorate to support a ballot restoring voting rights for ex-felons — this in a state notorious for especially partisan and sometimes racially charged politics, with razor-thin victory margins in many elections.
In Michigan, 27-year-old Democrat Katie Fahey, distraught after the 2016 presidential election, jump-started, through a Facebook post, the citizen effort to rework the state’s voting districts. Members of the group she formed had to agree to “create a system that worked for all voters, not to manipulate the game for either side,” Daley writes, as well as leave their anti-Trump sentiments elsewhere. Fahey’s group, using the tagline “Voters Not Politicians,” ultimately triumphed over state pols and deep-pocket opponents such as Michigan’s Chamber of Commerce and the conservative DeVos network (Betsy DeVos is Trump’s secretary of education).
“Unrigged” is full of well-drawn profiles of Fahey and other activists and colorful descriptions of their work, like the lawyers manning an Election Protection hotline office in Washington where there are “enough Starbucks cups to caffeinate The Walking Dead.” That’s a good counterweight to a subject that can seem complex at times: As Daley writes, “Gerrymandering sounds wonky. It reminds people of falling asleep in civics class.”
Daley is a soft-spoken guy with an engaging manner, and he says gerrymandering has been practiced by both Democrats and Republicans for decades of American political life. But he pulls no punches in saying Republican politicians have created the current mess, leading in turn to ferocious partisanship and the election of an authoritarian president who delights in fanning those flames.
“Donald Trump didn’t create this system — he’s a symptom of it,” he says. “But he’s here at least in part because Republicans had two roads after 2008. One was to talk to young voters, non-whites, and reach out to them. The other was REDMAP, and [Republican] officials said ‘The way for us to win is not to talk to people and persuade them about our policies, it’s going to be gerrymandering and playing games with voting districts.’ ”
Those kinds of games, he writes in “Unrigged,” have continued, with many Republican-led states now trying to restrict voting through means such as voter I.D. laws and eliminating precincts where, say, black voters — traditionally heavy Democratic supporters — cast their ballots. And in some of the red states where ballot initiatives have succeeded, such as Idaho — Medicaid expansion was approved by 61 percent of voters there — legislators have responded by enacting restrictions and barriers to future citizen ballots.
Part of the overall problem, Daley adds, is that Democrats became complacent after Obama’s election in 2008, thinking the new president’s margin of victory and the country’s changing demographics had secured long-term Democratic majorities.
Instead, he says, “The Democrats fell asleep at the wheel, and the Republicans got busy. The Democrats are still trying to catch up.”
Indeed, however thrilled he is at seeing citizen-driven voting initiatives gain ground against gerrymandering and extreme partisanship, he says those efforts must continue. “The history of voting rights in this country is not a straight line of progress. It’s fits and starts, it’s ambitious steps forward and then it’s blowback.”
That said, seeing the energy and grassroots activism around the issue “has restored my faith, and that needed some restoring. I hope my book will do it for others and provide a road map back to the kind of country we would all like to live in.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Daley will discuss “Unrigged” at a book launch at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley on Monday, March 16 at 7 p.m.