How congressional districts are drawn can change political outcomes for a decade. But the redistricting process is opaque and open to the influence of a complicated network of “dark money” groups.
Redistricting is the process of redrawing the maps that decide the makeup of congressional and state districts. In 42 states, it is controlled by elected state-level politicians. That means that in all but eight states, whichever party controls the state capitol will also have the final say over how congressional districts are drawn. This cycle, the stakes could not be higher. Democrats control the House of Representatives by just 10 members, and even a few minor changes to existing congressional districts could secure GOP control over the lower chamber for years to come.
In a campaign to “flip everything,” the Democratic Legislative Redistricting Committee set — and exceeded — a $50 million fundraising goal in an attempt to gain ground in legislatures across the country. Their efforts didn’t pay off. Partisan control changed in only one state, New Hampshire, where Republicans flipped the state house from blue to red. Currently, Republicans control 54 percent of state legislative seats nationwide, and Democrats command 45 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Months after the 2020 election cycle concluded, a complex ecosystem of private firms, trusts and nonprofits will now play a critical role in determining how the congressional map will be drawn.
Some of these groups have ties — formal and informal — to the Republican and Democratic Parties. Their campaigns to influence redistricting have already begun, even though states do not yet have the granular Census data that will determine how districts will be drawn due to delays in the 2020 Census.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a 527 political nonprofit run by former Attorney General Eric Holder, encourages supporters to “Let your neighbors and local leaders know that you’re ready for fair redistricting by writing an op-ed or sending a letter to the editor of your local papers. NDRC can provide you with content and statistics to help.”
The NDRC relies on donations to do outreach and fund legal challenges to Republican-drawn maps. Billionaire Democratic donor George Soros was the single largest contributor to the committee in 2018, giving $2.6 million in 2018.
The NDRC also runs a PAC, which raised a total $5.8 million during the 2020 election cycle, and a dark money group, the National Redistricting Action Fund which sued three states over their redistricting processes in late April. According to the conservative Washington Free Beacon, contributions to the NRAF include $3 million from Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss between 2018 and 2020.
The GOP founded the National Republican Redistricting Trust in 2017, shortly after the Democrats announced the formation of the NDRC. The GOP group is a private trust, meaning that neither its donors, expenditures nor tax records are required to be made publicly available. It runs the National Republican Redistricting PAC, which raised and spent significantly less than its Democratic counterpart in 2020, bringing in just over $19,700. The Trust is chaired by Adam Kinkaid, a longtime GOP staffer, who also serves as the executive director of Fair Lines America, a 501(c)(3) organization.
Fair Lines America’s website describes the organization as a “nonpartisan organization that provides education in the fields of demography, political science, geographic information systems, and legal studies.” In 2019, the group spent $50,000 opposing a successful Michigan ballot initiative to establish an independent redistricting commission.
According to tax documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service, Fair Lines raised $1.2 million in 2019 and spent nearly all of that sum, finishing the year with just over $23,000 in the bank. Part of their expenditures went to establishing the American Redistricting Project, a website originally published in 2019 to serve as a right-leaning hub for information about redistricting.
“If you are interested in redistricting and you’re a college student or you are a reporter, you end up at the Brennan Center or you end up at a couple of blogs done by college professors, but there’s nothing from the conservative movement,” Kincaid told The Hill. “What we wanted to do was to fill that vacuum.”
If the web of partisan redistricting trusts, charities, PACs and dark money groups seems complex, that’s by design. Efforts to mask a group’s partisan affiliation — like Fair Lines’ connection to the GOP — can help lawmakers make a case for using the resources and support they provide.
“Candidates need groups that are not partisan in name to figure out how to draw districts that will be deemed legal and that will maximize the absolute highest number of representatives that we want,” said Michael Wagner, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin who has studied redistricting.
Because redistricting happens on individual state levels, the rules that govern how outside groups can influence the process vary. Based on states’ disclosure rules and reporting regulations, dark money groups may be useful to groups who wish to keep their donors secret, explained Paul Mitchell, a data scientist who leads independent mapping firm Redistricting Partners.
“I think there are some legal and practical reasons for the different vehicles,” Mitchell said. “A big element of this is just how money flows – some businesses, organizations or foundations can give money to 501(c)(3)s but others may only be able to give to a (c)(4) committee.”
No matter the reasoning, the result is that it is nearly impossible to understand how much money groups are spending to sway redistricting in their favor. Still, Mitchell noted that redistricting costs less than campaigning.
“Redistricting can cost a lot because there are only so many real experts in the field (and a handful of charlatans) and the data building, software, technical work is expensive,” he said. “But, of course, these hundreds of thousands of dollars can save them a million dollars in the 2022 election, and given the 10-year nature of the work, it could save them $1 million per election cycle … so even if it costs $500,000 to save $5 million, that’s a smart investment.”
That’s why outside interest groups without official partisan affiliations also try to push redistricting committees to adhere to certain processes. Common Cause, a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization, organized a list of 10 “Redistricting Principles” it argues should govern the process in all states. The list has been endorsed by 16 civil rights groups and social justice groups. It advocates for transparency by redistricting committees and protections for racial minorities and “communities of interest.”
According to Mitchell, “this is a type of engagement around redistricting that is really normal.”
“These are clear ‘white hat’ organizations working in what they consider a real movement to make democracy work better and take some of the most corrosive practices out of our elections,” he added.
The public plays a role in redistricting in many states, some which solicit maps drawn by regular citizens. Many states invite comments and input from members of the public in hearings and through testimony. Outside groups can intervene in the process here too, by organizing public support for certain drafted maps and proposed boundaries.
“You can see organizations working to push an elected body or a commission to draw districts to protect certain communities of interest, or use testimony [or] media pushes, organized emails [and] phone calls to reach certain outcomes,” Mitchell said.
For example, Mitchell cited his own work with Equality California, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQIA rights. He helped them draft maps that accounted for geographically-specific LGBTQIA communities during the 2011 congressional redistricting process. In a hearing held by the California redistricting commission in April, Mitchell explained how his work with Equality California helped draw maps that empowered LGBTQIA communities.
“In 2011, when we came forward, your commissioners and your demographer … were extremely responsive to this need in this community and to the idea that they could work with us to make sure this data around the community could be exposed and made available in the redistricting process and to invite testimony in this community,” Mitchell told the commission.
These efforts can be extremely influential, whether they come from nonprofit advocacy groups like Equality California or partisan-focused organizations and individuals. In late April, a Republican Arizona state senator asked her Twitter followers to sign onto a petition to “TO SAY NO to Democrat-biased ‘HaystaqDNA,’” the redistricting firm Arizona’s independent redistricting commission had already selected for the job.
“The two Republican commissioners say there need to be a lot more public comments made against HaystaqDNA now! Please do it!” the senator tweeted.
Ultimately, the commission heeded the outpouring of public opposition to the selection of HaystaqDNA and opted for the Republican commissioners’ preferred mapping expert.