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State Redistricting a Target for “Dark Money” After Supreme Court Ruling

Efforts to add anti-gerrymandering initiatives to the ballot in 2020 are underway in several states.

Efforts to add anti-gerrymandering initiatives to the ballot in 2020 are underway in several states.

Redistricting for the next decade will be up to the states after the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that federal courts do not have the power to rule on partisan gerrymandering, the practice by which lawmakers draw maps that flagrantly benefit their own party.

The decision will make the control of state legislatures a priority for both parties in 2020, as — in the majority of states — the state lawmakers in power draw the maps for congressional districts. The ruling could also increase calls for nonpartisan congressional redistricting commissions, which more than a dozen states have adopted in some form.

But support for nonpartisan redistricting processes often falls along partisan lines. And in recent years, state-level ballot initiatives designed to create more independent redistricting processes have been the target of out-of-state cash, often from groups that do not disclose their donors.

In 2018, five states — Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah — passed ballot initiatives to reduce gerrymandering, which will take effect when the next round of redistricting begins in 2021.

In those states, committees affiliated with each party, “dark money” groups from inside the Beltway and a nonprofit run by Texas billionaires were just a few of the players using their money and influence to sway the ballot.

In Michigan, the group Voters Not Politicians, which gathered the signatures for a ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission, raised more than $16 million, nearly two-thirds of which came from two out-of-state organizations. Sixteen Thirty Fund, a Washington-based dark money group headed by former Bill Clinton aide Eric Kessler, contributed $6 million, while the Action Now Initiative, a 501(c)(4) group led by Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold, contributed an additional $5.1 million.

Voters Not Politicians also received $250,000 from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a 527 group launched in 2017 by several former Obama officials including attorney general Eric Holder. George Soros is the committee’s largest donor.

Opposing the Michigan ballot initiative were two groups: Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution and Protect My Vote. Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, which sued to keep the initiative off the ballot but lost, raised nearly $400,000, including $50,000 from Fair Lines America, a conservative dark money group based in Alexandria, Virginia.

Protect My Vote raised $3.3 million, more than 90 percent of which came from the Michigan Freedom Network, a group that received $500,000 from the family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

A few of the same groups waded into Missouri’s ballot initiative, which created a “non-partisan state demographer” to draw legislative districts with a statistical test to ensure fairness. The group Clean Missouri, which supported the initiative, received more than $1 million from the Action Now Initiative. Advance Missouri, which opposed it, received $50,000 from Fair Lines America.

In Colorado, Ohio and Utah, ballot measures did not encounter organized opposition, but out-of-state money still flowed in to support each initiative.

Fair Maps Colorado, which supported the two constitutional amendments to create an independent redistricting commission in the state, received more than $600,000 from the Action Now Initiative. In Ohio, where the ballot initiative garnered support from Republican Gov. John Kasich, the Coalition for Redistricting Reform raised $230,000, including $50,000 from the NDRC. A Democratic Governors Association-aligned super PAC called A Stronger Ohio also received $500,000 from the NDRC.

In Utah, where a ballot measure creating an independent redistricting commission passed by less than 7,000 votes, the group Utahns for Responsive Government, which supported the measure, raised nearly $3 million, including more than $1 million from the Action Now Fund.

The successful ballot initiatives in each of these states were largely considered victories for Democrats, who struggled to pick up congressional seats in states including Michigan and Ohio after Republican-led state legislatures drew the maps in 2011. But the Supreme Court’s ruling puts pressure on both parties.

In response to the Democrats’ redistricting 527, conservatives launched the National Republican Redistricting Trust in the fall of 2017. The nonprofit group, led by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and longtime GOP operative Adam Kincaid, has set a goal of raising $35 million by 2021 to support Republican redistricting efforts. It is not required to disclose its donors.

Organizing for Action, a 501(c)(4) founded in 2013 to support President Barack Obama’s agenda, announced in April that it would be rebranding as a nonprofit called All on the Line, set to focus on redistricting.

Efforts to add anti-gerrymandering initiatives to the ballot in 2020 are underway in several states including Arkansas, Mississippi, Oregon and Virginia.

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