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The man who rigged America’s election maps

How Tom Hofeller shifted the balance of power by taking gerrymandering to the extreme.

For most of his life, few people knew Thomas Hofeller’s name.

But for decades, Hofeller was the Republican Party’s most influential mapmaker. When it came time to redraw districts, Hofeller not only knew how to churn the data and work with the software — but he also knew exactly how this power could be used.

In 1991, Hofeller said, “I define redistricting as the only legalized form of vote-stealing left in the United States today.”

Then a decade later, he said, “Redistricting is like an election in reverse. It’s a great event. Usually the voters get to pick the politicians. In redistricting, the politicians get to pick the voters.”

Perhaps his greatest work was in his late years. In 2010, after Republicans took over several statehouses, Hofeller helped redraw several statehouse maps, including the maps in North Carolina.

Gerrymandering has been around for centuries, but in that redistricting cycle, Hofeller tested the limits of exactly how much power one party can accrue — without actually having a majority of the electorate support them. When the Supreme Court struck down his maps for diluting the voting power of black people, Hofeller drew another round of maps that diluted the political power of Democrats.

But in 2018, Hofeller died. Shortly thereafter, his daughter found thousands of his documents. And it turns out those documents are key to fixing the structural “vote stealing” Hofeller spent his life perfecting.

More reading:

  • My colleague Ella Nilsen wrote an excellent story during the 2018 midterm elections about the gerrymandered North Carolina districts. A few months later, the Supreme Court ruled that gerrymandering was outside their authority — something Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wrote was a bigger threat to democracy than Donald Trump. Shortly thereafter, the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the gerrymandered maps. Vox’s Ian Millhiser writes that this case, and other state cases, show the “cracks” in the Republican Party “gerrymandering firewall.”
  • This Powerpoint presentation Hofeller gave to state leaders is revealing. Hofeller told people to keep files secure. Turns out he wasn’t heeding his own advice.
  • One of the best books on modern gerrymandering is Ratf**ked by David Daley. He’s looked through some of Hofeller’s files and found an email where — shortly after being diagnosed with lung cancer and a kidney tumor — Hofeller wrote, “I still have time to bedevil the Democrats with more redistricting plans before I exit.”

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