by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
Interest groups packing hearings with their compatriots is an old tactic and can be highly effective. So it is hardly surprising that interest groups would target redistricting hearings to further their interests. One such group is seeking to manipulate the redistricting process in North Carolina this year.
Interest groups and the Democratic Party successfully manipulated map drawers during the last round of redistricting in California. In a 2012 report, “Redistricting Commissions Aren’t Immune From Politics,” the Pew Charitable Trusts found that interest-group testimony at redistricting hearings helped make districts more favorable to Democrats:
[A] ProPublica investigation pointed to places where the commission had adopted district lines promoted by supposed “good government” groups that actually were run by Democratic operatives. Democrats are expected to gain seats under California’s new maps. “It wasn’t so much that the Democrats tried,” says Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government and one of the consultants the commission passed over. “Of course they tried. The surprise is that it worked.”
The ProPublica investigation revealed that “Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests. When they appeared before the commission, those groups identified themselves as ordinary Californians and did not disclose their ties to the party.”
The redistricting commission took that testimony as really coming from regular citizens, resulting in a map in which Democrats were favored to win 4-6 more congressional seats than they would have under neutral redistricting criteria.
We can expect some of the usual suspects (such as Common Cause North Carolina, the League of Women Voters, and perhaps some Tea Party groups) will be involved in the public redistricting hearings in North Carolina this year. But a new group called All On The Line (AOTL) is seeking to dominate them.
While most progressive groups involved in the redistricting process can legitimately say that they are nonpartisan, AOTL cannot make that claim. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Redistricting Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) that functions as the “advocacy and lobbying arm” of Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC). Holder served as Attorney General under former President Barrack Obama. AOTL was formed when Holder’s NDRC merged with Obama’s political organization, Organizing for Action, in 2019.
AOTL claims to be “fighting against gerrymandering and pushing for fair maps in redistricting.” Still, their real goal is to increase the number of Democrats elected to Congress and state legislatures. Their target states are where Democrats hope to stop Republican advantages in redistricting or increase Democratic advantages: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. Notably, but not unexpectedly, absent from that list are states where Democrats have complete control of the redistricting process, such as Illinois or Maryland.
So we know that AOTL is a partisan organization that will push for districts that benefit Democrats in North Carolina. How will they do it?
AOTL has a two-part strategy. The first part is to try to get maps as advantageous to Democrats as possible through the redistricting process. They plan to do that in part by training activists to give testimony at redistricting hearings (see Figure 1). AOTL not only trains activists on how to be better public speakers, but they also train them on what to testify about at redistricting hearings: communities of interest.
Figure 1: Ad for AOTL NC public testimony training
Source: AOTL NC
As I previously noted, a community of interest is a “nebulous concept,” so “those seeking to influence the redistricting process can define almost any grouping of people as a community of interest.” That is what AOTL is attempting to do.
They are training their activists to use a program called “Representable” to draw communities of interest they can use to further the cause of Democrats at redistricting hearings. A quick view of Representable’s North Carolina page shows that many of the maps there have been made through AOTL.
AOTL leaders will monitor the redistricting process and match proposed maps against submitted Representable maps from AOTL activists. They will then contact activists whose submitted maps cross proposed district lines and direct them to make emotional appeals in public comment portals at the General Assembly’s web page, in letters to the editor, and directly to legislators themselves.
AOTL is ultimately not about persuasion but litigation, however. As AOTL NC openly admits (see Figure 2), their endgame to win “fair maps” for Democrats is to build a public record to use in lawsuits. Eric Holder is already planning to sue over North Carolina’s congressional districts. In the end, All On The Line is just a cog in Holder’s litigation machine.
Figure 2: Screenshot of AOTL NC video meeting
Of course, everyone has a right to speak at redistricting hearings and in public comments. Also, we cannot make people reveal their affiliation with partisan organizations while giving testimony at public hearings or submitting comments (compelled speech being a violation of free speech).
But observers (and judges) should be mindful of the attempts by groups like All On The Line to use the redistricting process as a stepping stone to the next lawsuit.