Obama AG Eric Holder Says New Gerrymandering Doc Offers "Path Forward" to Fix Broken Politics (Guest Column)

Charley Gallay/Getty Images; Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
A scene from 'Slay the Dragon' (Inset: Eric Holder)

The Magnolia Pictures film 'Slay the Dragon,' in theaters and on demand April 3, connects partisan redistricting to "heartbeat" abortion bills, inaction on background checks and resistance to expanding Medicaid.

For years now there has been a pervasive feeling among the American people that our political system is just not working the way it should. Time and again, we have seen politicians fail to take action on policies with broad popular support. Deep polarization has paralyzed Washington and torn apart any sense of common purpose in our elected officials. If you are wondering why our politics are so deeply broken, Slay the Dragon provides both an answer and a path forward.

Slay the Dragon tells the story of how a group of politicians, backed by special interests, executed a plan to win critical down-ballot elections in 2010 and then used that power to manipulate the maps for their own benefit. As the movie makes clear, when politicians gerrymander the result is not just skewed elections results — it shows up in the policies enacted or blocked and in the hyper partisanship that frustrates so many Americans right now.

In recent years, gerrymandering has enabled Republicans to establish illegitimate majorities in state legislatures and the United States House of Representatives. One study found that even in 2018 — a historic blue wave — Republican gerrymandering prevented Democrats from winning an additional 16 seats in the House of Representatives and flipping an additional seven state legislative chambers.

Because these politicians have used gerrymandering to almost guarantee their own re-election, they’ve stopped listening to their constituents and started pandering to their party’s extremes and the special interests who fund their elections. Gerrymandering is why there has been a series of so-called heartbeat bills that attack women’s reproductive rights, a refusal to pass background checks or ban assault weapons and a rejection of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. These actions are inconsistent with the wishes of the American people.

Gerrymandering may sound wonky, but Slay the Dragon is able to capture the real world impact it is having on our daily lives and the movie’s message could not be more timely or profound. I get that there will be an intense focus on the presidential election this year, but we can’t lose sight of the other important fights happening that will determine the future of our democracy. If we do not have an accurate Census count in 2020 and fair redistricting in 2021, the next president will be hobbled by a gerrymandered House of Representatives and gerrymandered state legislatures will advance an agenda that caters to the special interests and ignores the people. I know this to be true, because I experienced it during the Obama Administration. Time and again, we would put forward proposals with broad support among the American people only to have Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives stonewall us. It is not a coincidence that many of the most intransigent congressmen — like former Congressman Mark Meadows and Congressman Jim Jordan — represent the most gerrymandered districts in the country.

That is why upon leaving office, President Obama and I identified gerrymandering as an issue that needs to be fixed. In early 2017, I launched an effort to fight for a fair redistricting process. We are filing lawsuits against gerrymandered maps, supporting local candidates who pledge not to gerrymander and building a national grassroots movement for fair maps called All on the Line. Our All on the Line team is proud to work with Participant and Magnolia Pictures on the “Slay the Dragon” campaign to increase awareness around this issue and get even more citizens engaged in the redistricting process. We want to build more public support for reforms that make the redistricting process less partisan or remove the power to the draw the lines from politicians altogether and give it to citizen-led, nonpartisan commissions.

Slay the Dragon follows one such reform effort in Michigan — Voters Not Politicians — that was powered by a grassroots movement to create a nonpartisan, citizen-led redistricting committee. Gerrymandering is frustrating because it stacks the deck against voters and gives more power to the politicians, but we can fix it. I spent some time with the Voters Not Politicians team in Detroit a few weeks before election day in 2018 because they represent the path forward for us — a citizen-led movement that ends the era of politicians choosing their voters and gives power back to the people, where it belongs. We have the capacity — and the responsibility — to make the change we need real. We must not fail — our democracy is at stake. 

Eric H. Holder Jr. served as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States and currently leads an effort to combat gerrymandering throughout the country.