The decision by a North Carolina state court removes a protective shield from thousands of files belonging to veteran Republican mapmaker Thomas Hofeller.
Eight years ago, when Thomas Hofeller addressed state legislators from across the country in the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at National Harbor, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., he cautioned elected officials working on redistricting to “make sure your computer is in a private location” and warned them not to “walk away from it and leave your work exposed.”
“Remember,” one slide from his presentation reads, “A journey to legal HELL starts with but a single misstatement OR a stupid email!”
Hofeller, a veteran Republican mapmaker, failed to heed his own advice. After his death in 2018, his daughter, Stephanie, discovered backups of over 70,000 of his files. She notified Common Cause, a watchdog organization that works on voting rights, that she had the files, and Common Cause then subpoenaed her to provide them. After a handful were made public — including files that led to the removal of Trump’s citizenship question on the 2020 census — Geographic Strategies, a consulting firm co-founded by Hofeller, sued to keep more of the files from entering the public sphere.
The decision Monday by a North Carolina state court — removing a protective shield from tens of thousands of files belonging to Hofeller, likely making public details of his work on maps as well as litigation in states including Texas, Missouri, Arizona, Virginia, and North Carolina, among others — seemed inconceivable.
Hofeller, who spent parts of five decades remaking America from the shadows, always a step ahead of Democrats in understanding how redistricting, census data, and new technology could create new advantages for his side, will now stand unmasked. Many of Hofeller’s emails, his draft maps, and the algorithms that bedeviled Democrats for years appear poised to enter the public domain for the first time. Most importantly, they’ll be available to lawyers working to correct unconstitutional gerrymanders or litigating other efforts Hofeller worked on, whether from the 2010 cycle or beyond.
“Now the truth can come out about all of Hofeller’s shocking efforts to rig elections in almost every state,” said a statement from Common Cause on Monday. Still, that could take a while. The organization, which had subpoenaed the files from Hofeller’s daughter, did not indicate a timetable for the release. Lawyers will need to vet tens of thousands of documents; this means weeks or months, not days.
In his ruling, N.C. Superior Court Judge Vincent M. Rozier Jr. lifted the confidentiality order from many, but not all, of the strategist’s materials. Almost 1,000 files will still remain confidential. Litigation will continue over an additional 135,000 documents that the firm Hofeller co-founded, Geographic Strategies, claims it owns. Rozier’s decision rejected claims that Geographic Strategies owned work that Hofeller produced outside the firm, as well as the argument that the firm had the standing to protect his personal documents.
Over the last several weeks, and prior to the judge’s ruling, The Intercept, which obtained Hofeller’s files, has already begun publishing documents from the computer backups that detail how he and other Republican operatives and elected officials plotted to win control of state legislatures in 2010, then used racial and partisan data to aggressively gerrymander — often unconstitutionally — state legislative and congressional maps to all but ensure GOP control, even when Democrats win more votes.
Below is a selection of The Intercept’s revelations so far. We intend to continue publishing important stories of national interest from these documents and showing the extent of GOP efforts to manipulate maps and rig elections. Stay tuned.
The files of Republican gerrymandering mastermind Thomas Hofeller provide a window into his redistricting work across the U.S., and the network of political operatives who supported it.
The draft maps, obtained by The Intercept, illustrate how Republican mapmakers can secretly calibrate maps to have a deep partisan bias, even when they follow the rules.
“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats,” said North Carolina Rep. David Lewis, in 2016 in a legislative committee hearing, “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
This might be the most infamous gerrymandering confession ever — a rare moment of clarity exposing the GOP’s ambition to control the state’s map through redistricting. This year, Lewis’s statement was debated in the Supreme Court; in 2017, it was even cited by comedian John Oliver. And this week, the admission that state lawmakers intended to give an advantage to the Republican Party was at the root of a decision by a North Carolina state court that invalidated the state’s congressional map ahead of 2020.
But even Lewis’s bold acknowledgement understated the GOP’s redistricting capabilities, new documents obtained by The Intercept suggest. In fact, GOP strategists did prove that it was possible to draw a map with 11 or 12 Republican congressional seats — in one case, a partisan gerrymander that could have feasibly elected an all-white slate.
In 2016, Thomas Hofeller, the veteran redistricting mastermind, was tapped by Lewis and the North Carolina legislature to craft the state’s congressional lines. The original map, drawn in 2011 redistricting, had been thrown out for racially discriminatory intent. During that process, Hofeller created drafts of maps that would give Democrats only one or two seats in this competitive purple state. These never-before-seen draft maps are among the more than 70,000 previously unpublished documents and emails from Hofeller’s hard drives, obtained and reviewed by The Intercept. And there is evidence that he talked them over with Lewis, who chaired the state House of Representatives redistricting committee from 2011 until 2018.
New documents suggest that even Lewis’s bold acknowledgement understated the GOP’s redistricting capabilities.
Lewis has maintained that his specific instructions to draw Republicans a partisan advantage were meant to make clear that the maps were motivated by politics, not race. At the time, GOP lawmakers believed that the partisan gerrymander would be legal. But on Monday, the court ruled that it violates the state’s constitutional protections of both fair elections and equal protection “beyond a reasonable doubt.” (Lewis did not reply to a request for comment for this story.)
The decision to invalidate the state’s current maps throws the voting process into disarray just months before both parties must nominate congressional candidates from districts that now don’t exist. The judges indicated that any Republican appeal would be unlikely to succeed. Democrats control the state Supreme Court. So the most likely road now is that state legislators will need to quickly draw — and win court approval — of new maps.
These documents, though never enacted, could now be crucial to any Republican appeal of the state court decision on Monday, as well as the debate over how a new map should be drawn. They provide extra evidence of what the court called the “partisan intent and the intended partisan effect” of the 2016 GOP-drawn map. And they represent an important warning about how Republican mapmakers can secretly calibrate maps to have a deep partisan bias, even when they look compact and follow rules about not splitting counties into separate districts.
Lewis and other GOP leaders, apparently concerned that an 11-2 map might spread Republican votes too thin, selected a map that was partisan but not as risky. (Maryland Democrats made a similar calculation, drafting a map that gave them all eight of the state’s congressional seats, but settling on a safer, incumbent friendly 7-1 breakdown.)
Indeed, the careful bet paid off: The congressional maps returned the 10-3 advantage Lewis sought in 2016 and again in 2018, cushioning the GOP against the blue wave and leaving the party in control of 10 of 13 seats even as Democratic candidates won more statewide votes. Democrats won their three races with upwards of 70 percent of the vote. Every Republican won with a more efficient percentage in the 50s, except for the one incumbent who ran unopposed.
These maps not only twisted representation inside North Carolina by all but guaranteeing Republicans more than 70 percent of the state’s seats in Congress, even with less than 50 percent of the statewide vote, but had a considerable national impact as well. North Carolina’s new 11th District, for example, created by cracking liberal Asheville in two and diluting the votes of Democrats, safely elected Rep. Mark Meadows, the former chair of the House Freedom Caucus. This map also cracked the city of Greensboro, not only dividing this majority-minority city among two conservative districts, but also cleaving the historically black campus of North Carolina A&T State University almost exactly in half, scattering seven dorms into one district and six in another.
In February 2016, when a panel of three federal district court judges struck down Hofeller’s original North Carolina map, drawn in 2011, as a racial gerrymander in violation of the 14th Amendment’s “one person, one vote” protections, it didn’t take long for Hofeller to get back to work. The judges ruled — and the U.S. Supreme Court later upheld — that Hofeller impermissibly used race data when drawing a majority of black voters into two congressional districts, the 1st and 12th.
Hofeller explored the outer limits to see if an even larger GOP edge might be possible.
During the first and second week of February, according to depositions, Lewis and state Sen. Robert Rucho, the other legislative co-chair, visited Hofeller’s home in a modest Raleigh retirement community on multiple occasions. A different, if still crafty, plan came together. After watching their 10-3 congressional map overturned for overreliance on race data, they understood that no U.S. Supreme Court standard existed to prevent them from maximizing political data. Maybe they couldn’t get away with a racial gerrymander, but they could partisan gerrymander to their hearts’ content. Hofeller devised an algorithm based on the results of seven recent statewide races that he believed would perfectly predict the outcome of any North Carolina race.
Hofeller got back to work on new maps the same week that the court’s decision arrived. Republicans held 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats on the now-invalid map. Hofeller knew he could create another that provided the same result; indeed, Lewis, Rucho, and the state legislature actually enacted criteria that would require that outcome. But Hofeller also explored the outer limits to see if an even larger GOP edge might be possible.
Turns out, it was. A Hofeller map labeled Plan 17A created 11 GOP districts, guaranteed Democrats just one, and included one toss-up seat that remained 49.5 percent Republican.
“It’s just an experiment to see what the possibilities could be,” Hofeller said of this map, in a previously unreported deposition during Rucho v. Common Cause, also found in his files. (A less detailed version of this map, though not any of these supporting materials, surfaced during discovery for that trial, which ended last spring at the U.S. Supreme Court.)
A second Hofeller map, this one named Plan ST-B, advantaged Republicans in at least 10 seats, locked in two for the Democrats, and also included one competitive toss-up district with a 49.5 percent GOP population.
Gerrymandering tends to work like this: A mapmaker packs as many opposing voters as possible into one or two districts, then sprinkles the remaining voters as thinly as possible across the remaining seats. That creates landslide districts for the other side, won with over 65 or 70 percent of the vote, and uses one’s own voters efficiently to win more seats by a smaller margin, usually in the mid-to-high 50s. A mapmaker especially confident in the voter algorithm might feel comfortable narrowing that margin into the low 50s edge in order to go for even more seats.
Hofeller did not lack confidence, and Plan 17-A might have been Hofeller’s master stroke: a map that spread the GOP vote across North Carolina with tremendous precision in search of one or two extra seats.
Plan 17-A packs most North Carolina Democrats into a single seat, a radically reimagined NC-01 that essentially corrals liberal Chapel Hill and Durham with the urban core of Raleigh. According to Hofeller’s tabulations, that seat would be 72.1 percent Democratic and just 27.9 percent Republican. This area is currently represented by a white Democrat, veteran lawmaker David Price.
Democratic voters would only hold a majority in one other district on this map, the second, and just barely. That district, centered in rural, eastern North Carolina counties such as Pitt, Johnston, and Greene, would be 50.5 percent Democratic and 49.5 Republican. The counties in the imagined NC-02 here are currently scattered among four other congressional districts.
The uber-aggressive drafts are a frightening illustration of what the 2021 redistricting cycle might look like, in an ever-more-polarized nation, with ever-more-sophisticated mapmaking software.
It’s a wildly but elegantly gerrymandered map: Asheville, a liberal bastion in Buncombe County in western North Carolina, is cracked in half and divided between two Republican districts. Hofeller’s reimagined 12th District dances narrowly along the South Carolina border just long enough to lasso the whitest, wealthiest neighborhoods in Charlotte. It envelops one of the only majority-minority districts, currently represented by Alma Adams. Adams would have been relocated to the 6th District, an overwhelmingly Republican seat. It splits Charlotte’s county, Mecklenberg, three times. And if you wanted to drive the 45 miles from Charlotte to White Store, both in the same district, you’d cross over two other districts before arriving back in the 12th.
In five districts, the GOP edge was under 52 percent — meaning that these districts would be 51/49 nail-biters. Only one district, at 57 percent Republican, could be seen as safe for the GOP. In a table named “2016 Congressional Plan Compared to Three Additional Plans,” Hofeller presented only that single district as safely Republican, with 10 others that leaned Republican, and then one safely Democrat and another leaning blue.
If Plan 17-A had been enacted, and the university towns in NC-01 elected a white Democrat, it’s easy to imagine that a map enacted to cure a racial gerrymander might have actually elected 13 white members of Congress.
Hofeller’s files also include a second plan, this one named ST-B. This map, while just as gerrymandered, shored up Republican margins. It created two packed Democratic districts instead of one: Democratic voters dominated the first 72 percent to 28 percent, and also the 12th, 69.7 percent to 30.3 percent. That allowed Hofeller to reinforce the GOP seats: Six of these seats were safely above 55 percent Republican, with four additional seats leaning their way. Once again, Hofeller created a district that was 50.5 percent Democratic and 49.5 Republican. Plan ST-B, then, played safer for the GOP: Republicans began with a 6-2 edge, and would be favored in four of the other five districts. Adams, once again, would have been forced to run in the new 6th District, a majority Republican seat.
According to depositions during Rucho v. Common Cause, the two politicians visited Hofeller, and Hofeller shared various maps and the math behind them. Ultimately, the legislature settled on the 10-3 map; in 2018, Democrats won their districts with 69.9, 75.1, and 73.1 percent of the vote, while every Republican running a contested race landed safely in the 50s. Democrats won more total votes, but the map spread the Republican votes more effectively and efficiently.
A document from October 2017, “Placement of Incumbents,” suggests why Lewis, Rucho, and the GOP leaders made that calculation. Hofeller’s 11-2 map would have required “double-bunking” — pitting two incumbents against one another — several Republican members.
In another previously unreported deposition discovered inside Hofeller’s files, Lewis conceded that as the leaders chose between Hofeller’s various plans, protecting Republican incumbents was very much on their mind. “I’m certain that was one of the criteria that we talked about,” Lewis said. “I know we talked about if we could (at) all avoid — we didn’t want to place two incumbent members in the same seat. I know we talked about that.”
While the uber-aggressive plans Hofeller drew ultimately weren’t used, they’re a frightening illustration of what the 2021 redistricting cycle might look like — and just how far redistricting can go in an ever-more-polarized nation, with ever-more-sophisticated mapmaking software.
Hofeller’s zealously partisan maps, after all, appear reasonable: They hold counties together, appear contiguous, and score well on compactness tests. Documents in his files show that Hofeller tested them to be sure.
Democratic strongholds in Charlotte, Asheville, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh are artfully “cracked” or “packed,” but it’s only the Charlotte-area districts that resemble “funny-looking” gerrymanders. In other words, the maps are carefully designed to pass both the eye test and state legal standards, while still giving Republicans as many as 11 or 12 reliable victories.
These draft maps are also important because they foreshadow the dangers for minority representation in explicitly partisan maps. North Carolina notwithstanding, the Supreme Court decision this summer to make partisan gerrymandering the jurisdiction of states will likely embolden future state legislatures to tilt maps in a partisan direction. What North Carolina makes clear is that allowing partisan gerrymanders could potentially undermine protections against racial gerrymandering. In states where black and other minority voters are closely aligned with the Democratic Party, a partisan gerrymander can become a legal way to draw a racial gerrymander.
Correction: October 31, 2019.
A previous version misstated that Alma Adams was North Carolina’s only black member of Congress. Adams represents one of the only majority-minority districts in North Carolina.
The files of Republican gerrymandering mastermind Thomas Hofeller provide a window into his redistricting work across the U.S., and the network of political operatives who supported it.
Kathryn and James Murdoch have begun a major push into American politics ahead of 2020. But their foray into Pennsylvania raises questions.
It’s not unusual for billionaires and lobbyists to set up political groups that masquerade as grassroots movements, but most of the time they make it slightly difficult for the rest of us to figure out what’s going on. Other times, however, it’s not that hard.
Take the curious case of Kathryn Murdoch and Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering. According to its incorporation papers, Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering was formed in early August by the Gober Group, an election law firm based in northern Virginia. The first public mention of Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering came a month later, in an announcement by Unite America, a once obscure political organization that raised its profile earlier this year when Kathryn Murdoch became its co-chair and largest donor; she’s a daughter-in-law of Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch. On September 19, Unite America announced that it is providing more than $5 million in funding to Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering and three groups in Massachusetts, Alaska, and New York that advocate for ranked-choice voting and fairer redistricting.
Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering is in favor of an independent citizens commission to draw federal district lines in Pennsylvania following the 2020 census, according to the group’s website. Its proposed legislative framework would “prohibit elected officials from serving on the commission, impose a supermajority requirement to adopt maps, and introduce standards for public transparency during the map drawing process.” It’s the kind of agenda that’s favored by advocates of voting reform who don’t want Republicans or Democrats to dominate the process.
But there appear to be a number of anomalies in the available information about Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering, the most important of which is that lobbyists associated with it were previously involved in precisely the kind of gerrymandering the group is supposed to stand against. Two of the most powerful lobbying firms in the state — Long, Nyquist & Associates and Maverick Strategies — are registered as working on behalf of Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering, but both firms are regarded as GOP-inclined. And both firms have lobbyists who were closely linked to the notoriously rigged election maps that Republicans engineered in the state after the 2000 and 2010 censuses.
The rollout of Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering has been surprisingly quiet. Unite America’s announcement of its funding received almost no attention; there appear to have been no news stories about it in September, and Unite America didn’t even mention it on Twitter. In Pennsylvania, voting reform activists had no idea that a newcomer existed and was being praised and singled out for extremely generous attention by a New York City billionaire (the Murdoch family is worth nearly $20 billion). Jill Greene, executive director of the League of Women Voters’ Pennsylvania chapter, told The Intercept last month, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of them.”
Pat Beaty, the legislative director of the nonpartisan Fair Districts PA, laughed out loud when he read Unite America’s description of Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering as “leading the legislative advocacy campaign” for fair elections in the state. “I have never heard of these people,” he said.
While it is not known how much Unite America is giving to Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering, it is making large grants to the other groups it is backing. The head of Voter Choice Massachusetts, Mac D’Alessandro, told The Intercept that his organization is receiving more than $1 million in matching funds from Unite America. The New York organization funded by Unite America, Rank the Vote, is getting $500,000, according to Susan Lerner, executive director of the New York chapter of Common Cause, which is a key participant in Rank the Vote.
The funding for Beaty’s organization in Pennsylvania pales in comparison: Fair Districts has an annual budget of about $125,000 raised from small donors in the state, according to Beaty.
After The Intercept reached out, Unite America altered its description to say that Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering was “supporting” a legislative advocacy campaign rather than “leading” it. Unite America also removed a reference to Fair Districts, after Beaty said Fair Districts contacted Unite America to say it didn’t want its name used in their announcement. Unite America; Long, Nyquist & Associates; the Gober Group; Maverick Strategies; and Kathryn Murdoch did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
What this means is that all of a sudden, a new group with a billionaire backer, no track record, not much of a paper trail, a disinclination to talk with reporters, and lobbyists with a history of undermining fair elections appears to have far more money at its disposal than established groups. And this is occurring in one of the most important swing states in the country.
The grants from Unite America are “just the beginning,” according to its September announcement. While Unite America has not provided any figures on its plans for future spending, Kathryn Murdoch suggested, in an interview last month with the New York Times, that she and her husband James (who is Rupert Murdoch’s second son) intend to make at least $100 million in political donations. She described herself as a “radical centrist” and has contributed the maximum amount allowed to Pete Buttigieg’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“I am thrilled to support these campaigns alongside a growing community of philanthropists who are stepping forward to help accelerate the democracy reform movement,” Murdoch said in the September announcement.
The question of how America elects its representatives is, in some ways, more consequential than the question of who runs for office — because voting systems can all but determine which candidates win. Citizen-led and nonpartisan redistricting commissions are generally seen as the best way to draw fair boundaries of legislative districts, rather than leaving it in the hands of party politicians. But the details matter. The criteria for a commission — such as preserving rural counties over ethnic communities of interest — could deeply shape the outcome. And nonpartisan commissions have reportedly been used by partisans to cover for gerrymandering in the interests of one party or another in states across the country.
The only Pennsylvanians who appear to be connected to Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering are not ordinary ones: They are lobbyists at Long, Nyquist & Associates and Maverick Strategies. Long, Nyquist & Associates has a team of 20 lobbyists registered to work for the group, according to state records, and Long, Nyquist & Associates’ website lists Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering as one of its clients. The firm, based in Harrisburg, the state capital, has lobbyists with a deep history of shaping redistricting efforts in favor of the GOP. The firm’s co-founder is Michael Long, a veteran GOP operative. In 2002, following the 2000 census, Long, then a GOP staff member to Lt. Gov. Robert Jubelirer, managed the redistricting process for the Pennsylvania Senate Republicans.
In the 2000 election, under the old maps, the state was closely divided, with Republicans controlling 11 House seats and Democrats controlling 10. Following the census, however, with the GOP in control of the state legislature and governorship, and Long as a principal architect, boundaries were set for maximum partisan power. The state experienced less population growth than other states, meaning Pennsylvania lost two House districts. The gerrymander concentrated Democratic voters into tightly packed districts, while spreading GOP-leaning areas into pockets designed to limit competitiveness.
The state was a crucial battleground in an effort championed by Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s strategist, to secure Republican congressional majorities through high-tech mapmaking. The Pennsylvania plan, authored by Long, made at the “behest of White House and national GOP strategists,” produced the “biggest pro-Republican swing in the nation,” according to a report in the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
In the following midterm election in 2002, Republicans won 12 House seats and the Democrats controlled only seven House seats. In 2004, votes were about evenly distributed among Democratic and Republican House candidates, but the GOP again maintained its five-seat advantage.
“This state is very much becoming more Republican and this map, frankly, helps in that trend,” Long told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002, as the reapportionment process came to a close.
In 2007, Long moved to the private sector, co-founding his consulting firm. Another senior GOP operative, Todd Nyquist, joined two years later. But Long continued to stay involved in Republican campaigns and efforts to use Pennsylvania’s election boundaries to strengthen the GOP’s partisan advantage in federal elections, this time for the presidential campaign.
In 2011, Long helped create an organization called All Votes Matter, which was designed to change the way the electoral votes in the state are awarded. Rather than a winner-take-all system that is in place in most states, the group sought to award the electoral college by congressional district, a system that would have ensured a Republican would win the majority of Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes even if President Barack Obama (or any future Democrat presidential candidate) had carried the state in his 2012 reelection. Following a national outcry over the attempt, the All Votes Matter bid failed.
The 2011 gerrymander was an even more sophisticated effort by the GOP. In 2010, the tea party wave brought Republicans to power again in Pennsylvania, with control of the state legislature and governorship. The ascendant GOP again used the census reapportionment to carefully tailor the mapmaking process to create what election analyst Sean Trende wrote could be the “Gerrymander of the Decade.”
The map created “a group of Rorschach-inkblot districts in southeastern Pennsylvania,” as Trende noted, winding and curving to lock Democratic voters into deeply blue seats, while merging two Democratic districts in the western part of the state. Democrats were placed at a disadvantage, while 13 House seats for Republicans were drawn as safe seats. The map worked as intended. In 2012, the first congressional election post-redistricting, Democrats won a majority of statewide votes for House campaigns but Republicans managed to win 13 of the state’s 18 congressional districts.
Pennsylvania’s 7th District, designed to be held by a Republican in the generally Democratic-leaning Philadelphia suburbs, served as one particularly egregious example. The district was spread out over five counties, carving up individual communities with partisan and racial intent. At one point, in the 7th District, a city was divided with a connection point drawn so narrowly that one part of the district is connected only by a single steakhouse restaurant.
Michael Long is not the only connection between Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering and gerrymandering of the past. State Rep. Mike Turzai, the leader of the state House Republican drive to draw the 2011 gerrymander, later thanked his chief of staff, Krystjan Callahan, for his role in helping shape the effort. Callahan is now a lobbyist for Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering, through his work at Maverick Strategies.
What’s striking about the 7th District is that Unite America actually cites it as an example of egregious gerrymandering — yet doesn’t mention that the district was created, in part, by the lobbyists who are now supposed to be fighting against abuses of its sort.
It is not clear why Unite America and Long, Nyquist & Associates joined forces in what they claim to be a nonpartisan redistricting effort ahead of the 2021 redistricting cycle. But it appears their relationship may go back to at least 2014. The executive director of Unite America, Nick Troiano, ran in a congressional Pennsylvania district in 2014 as an independent against an incumbent Republican, Thomas Marino. According to FEC records, Marino’s campaign consultants included Long, Nyquist & Associates. Marino was reelected to Congress with 62 percent of the vote.
Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering also appears to be getting help from at least one other lobbyist involved with prior gerrymandering efforts by the GOP. Alan Philp, the contact listed for Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering on its lobbying registration forms and on a website registration, is a Colorado-based Republican consultant who was involved in a 2016 ballot measure attempt, called End Gerrymandering Now, that sought to reform Colorado’s redistricting process. But critics alleged that the group was a stealth attempt by the GOP to craft rules that favored Republican candidates by insufficiently prioritizing district lines that preserve “communities of interest.” The Colorado Independent, a left-leaning outlet, wondered if the group was “actually a nefarious Trojan Horse plot to tint Colorado red?”
The files of Republican gerrymandering mastermind Thomas Hofeller provide a window into his redistricting work across the U.S., and the network of political operatives who supported it.
Documents outline plans by top GOP strategists to exploit the creation of “majority-minority” seats and ensure redistricting dominance.
In court and in public, many top Republicans have denied gerrymandering gives them any advantage at all. They’ve captured state legislatures and won an edge in Congress, some have suggested, due to superior candidates, better campaigns, and natural geographic sorting that clusters Democrats in urban areas and spreads Republicans more efficiently across the suburbs and rural America.
“The problem is not district lines; the problem is weak candidates who run poor campaigns based on bad ideas,” said Chris West, spokesperson for former Virginia Speaker of the House William Howell, in 2017.
“We have better candidates, better issues and a better understanding of what our constituents want to do,” Wisconsin state Rep. Kathleen Bernier told the Wall Street Journal in the same year.
In a trove of never before published memos and emails, however, GOP leaders come clean: Their nationwide advantage in state legislatures and Congress is built on gerrymandering. And top Republican strategists and political operatives admit to weaponizing racial data and the Voting Rights Act in order to flip the South red and tilt electoral maps in their direction.
Those are among the revelations from over 70,000 documents, maps, and emails, obtained by The Intercept, that were culled from the hard drive backups of the late redistricting mastermind Thomas Hofeller. Though the exact purpose or destination — and sometimes even the author — of each memo is not always clear, the thinking revealed in the documents and drafts is illuminating. Some appear to be regular updates for Republican leadership, top stakeholders, and key donors.
They offer additional insights into the Republican’s 2010 Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, strategy — a $30 million push to capture swing-state legislative chambers ahead of the decennial redistricting — and new evidence that the GOP viewed these maps as the firewall that allowed them to retain control of the U.S. House and multiple state legislatures despite the 2012 Democratic wave.
The title of one late 2012 memo makes it clear: “RNC Redistricting Program Underpins GOP Success in U.S. House and State Legislatures.” That memo appears to have been written by Hofeller himself. Also, in 2011, strategists boasted that the “energy and resources poured into last year’s legislative races are paying large dividends in the ongoing redistricting process,” and that “the tide of victory” helps “increase our control” over new maps.
Perhaps most importantly, some memos explicitly state the connections between race and redistricting, and say that Republican strategists working with the highest level of the national party sought to exploit the creation of “majority-minority” seats as part of a strategy to both pack black voters into a limited number of seats and equate Democrats and minorities in the minds of white voters, especially across the South.
A December 2014 memo from the redistricting firm co-founded by Hofeller, Geographic Strategies, states that “the GOP’s success in redistricting actually had its genesis in a decade-long struggle in the federal court system beginning in the 1980s.” It appears to be addressed to the leadership of the Republican National Committee. Geographic Strategies was contracted by the RNC over much of this decade for more than $22,000 a month in legal work, mapmaking, and litigation advice from Hofeller and his partner, Dale Oldham.
Republicans could benefit, the unusually candid memo maintained, through clever application of the Voting Rights Act and the creation of black and Latino districts where possible. It provides a startlingly frank discussion of the GOP’s modern Southern strategy, and the primary role played by race and redistricting, especially following the 1982 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.
Black and Latino voter representation increased under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which allowed the creation of majority-minority seats to provide minority voters with the opportunity to elect members of their own choosing, where possible. The measure was a way to make sure minority votes were not diluted. It does not state that these districts needed to pack 50 percent — or more — of the minority voters into one district in order to so. But that’s what Republican mapmakers did.
So, as black and Latino voters were packed into “majority-minority” seats, surrounding districts became whiter and more Republican. This was no accident, these memos suggest, but a conscious, decadeslong plan: “GOP attorneys and redistricting experts successfully fought three decades of court battles which culminated just this November when the GOP gained full political control of the entire South.”
As “more and more minority districts” were created, the memo maintains, “Democrats became less and less able to take advantage of strong Democratic minority areas to create districts which would elect non-minority Democrats to both state legislatures and Congress.” In other words, the GOP redistricting strategy helped turn the South red by making minorities the face of the Democratic Party throughout the region. White moderate Democrats were replaced by a small number of progressive minorities and a larger number of white conservative Republicans.
Hofeller’s files include candid updates on the state of the redistricting fight from 2011, when this decade’s mapmaking began, through 2014, as GOP-drawn maps in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and elsewhere became enmeshed in litigation as unconstitutional partisan or racial gerrymanders. They capture the jubilation among Republican strategists after the 2010 GOP landslide, as they immediately recognized the power gained by drawing advantageous maps across swing states like Ohio, Michigan, and Florida, and celebrate the success of a California initiative establishing independent redistricting in a state ordinarily run by Democrats. They also capture the long sigh of relief after the 2012 Obama reelection, and how they, in private, credit GOP maps for allowing the party to maintain control of Congress and many state legislatures even with fewer overall votes.
The memos show that top GOP leaders recognized what they’d won in November 2010: When they gained control over state legislatures in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin, and many other states, they also gained control over redistricting. It was also a census year, meaning they’d be able to draw new districts in more than 75 percent of states gaining or losing a member of Congress due to population shifts in the decennial reapportionment. Democrats, one memo noted, would “take the hit.”
The boasting began early: “The Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania congressional maps offered strong victories for Republicans so far in the redistricting process,” Hofeller wrote in a 2011 end of year status update to Republican stakeholders. “Georgia’s one seat gain in reapportionment benefits the GOP as the legislature is fully controlled by Republicans. They used this opportunity to draw a new GOP congressional seat and tighten control of other districts.”
Indeed, REDMAP, a program the Republican State Leadership Committee funded with $30 million contributed from top GOP donors including Reynolds American, Altria, and Walmart, would prove even more effective that Republicans imagined. Even in 2018 — four election cycles into these maps, and long past the time when most gerrymanders remain effective — Republicans won towering majorities in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin legislative chambers with fewer total Republican votes.
But what these memos and internal documents demonstrate is that this was a far-reaching strategy designed to make minority rule part of the American electoral landscape. A November 8, 2010, memo from then-RNC Chair Michael Steele to national committee members described the party’s electoral victories the week before as “not just dramatic, they were historic” and the “best showing by the Republican party in generations.”
More importantly, Steele observed, the 2010 victories set the party up for a decade of dominance. “Viewed in the context of redistricting, the Republican legislative gains are even more impressive,” he wrote.
Steele also noted that California voters passed an initiative establishing an independent redistricting commission for congressional districts, “reducing the number of Congressional seats in which Democrats control the redistricting process nationally by more than a third.”
As maps began to emerge across the country, many drawn by Hofeller and others under his tutelage, the gerrymandering mastermind understood just how advantageous these new congressional lines would be for his side.
Hofeller surveyed the nation in a memo drafted for the RNC, called “Redistricting Narrative State-by-State 2011.” He liked what he saw. Hofeller looked especially excited about North Carolina, where, the memo details, a congressional map he thought favored Democrats during the 2000s was “a problem we should be able to remedy. … Look for large GOP gains in congressional seats in State as well as out being able to shore up our legislative chambers majorities.” (The maps in North Carolina were struck down recently for partisan gerrymandering, in part based on files from Hofeller’s backups showing calculations by race.)
In February 2012, more than eight months before a vote would be cast in any of these districts, he provided the Republican State Leadership Committee with a state-by-state roadmap. In Pennsylvania, he observed, “The GOP congressional remap was very aggressive, with the Democrats taking the hit on the lost seat and the GOP strengthening its margins in many of its present seats.” He had similar news from Ohio, Michigan, and Georgia, where, he wrote, the “GOP is fully in control and used the opportunity to draw a new GOP congressional seat and tighten control of other districts.”
In Florida, Hofeller noted the passage of a constitutional amendment with “vague language” forbidding any effort to draw districts that favor or disfavor either side, “which, of course, happens in any redistricting map.” And he smiled upon California, describing a 2001 compromise between Democrats and Republicans as an incumbent-friendly “‘sweetheart’ deal … entirely designed to eliminate competition.” The new maps, he reported, would lead to a “somewhat increased level of partisan competitiveness.”
In Texas, meanwhile, Hofeller and his firm warned that legislative Republicans were overreaching in their plans, and jeopardizing GOP gains, by diluting the vote of Latinos.
Hofeller’s firm rang the alarm in early June 2011 after analyzing the legislature’s latest map. “There is no new Latino district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — with all the Latino and African populations not contained in Congresswoman Johnson’s District (30-D) being fractured between GOP districts in the area,” he noted, in a memo marked confidential and addressed simply to “the RNC chief counsel.”
“The Democrats will have no trouble pointing to the fact that the GOP is well aware of ALL the possibilities available to fix these deficiencies, with many of them already on our record,” Hofeller writes. “In addition, MALDEF [the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund] has already submitted its own maps into the record. Proving [discriminatory] intent will be no problem for them.” Indeed, the 2011 maps would be struck down for their discriminatory intent; slightly reworked maps were also the subject of contentious litigation, and ultimately upheld 5-4 by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018.
The Texas attorney general, Hofeller said, understood the risks the legislature could be taking but appeared unable to steer the chambers into a legal “safe harbor,” which would only end up helping the Democrats. “The other side,” he adds, “only needs one good mistake on our part to stall us and decrease our possible seat gains by forcing the remap into the Texas federal court.”
As early as October 2011, Hofeller and Oldham recognized that while Republicans had the electoral edge and had achieved important victories in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere, but Democrats appeared better funded to litigate maps and unwind the GOP success. In Colorado, Minnesota, Maryland, Nevada, and elsewhere, a memo called “Redistricting Hot Spots” that includes revisions by both partners warned that the GOP needed to invest in the legal fight or risk watching their edge evaporate. Illinois, he wrote in the 2011 wrapup, “is the only state in this round of redistricting where the Democrats have control and were able to inflict major damage on the GOP.”
Hofeller was less sanguine about the Arizona redistricting commission, which he claimed Democrats were “successful in subverting” through the selection of an independent chairwoman who was “somewhat less than forthcoming about her ties to the Democrats.” Hofeller fretted that it could cost the GOP two seats in Congress and weaken its hold on the legislature, “all a result of Arizona’s GOP stakeholders being ‘asleep at the switch’ during part of the process selecting the members of the commission.”
And in Nevada, they write, “The ability to gain control of the state senate, better numbers in the Assembly including sustaining vetos, and one and a half GOP congressional seat are at stake. This case is chronically underfunded on the GOP side.” Divided political control in Minnesota created a deadlock over maps which landed in the courts, and the memo warns that “newly-won legislative majorities are at stake and the Democrats have sent in their ‘A Team.’” A spreadsheet called “Redistricting Legal A” lays out a more than $9 million litigation budget for 2011, including fees for Hofeller and Oldham. It breaks down the needs state by state and offers a narrative that includes insights into GOP strategies.
While Republicans have described the Democratic litigation this decade as “sue until blue,” this document shows that the GOP also considered litigation over what they saw as unfriendly maps in Kentucky and Illinois. In Illinois, “Section 2 litigation may be only hope of challenging Dem plans if they eliminate or reduce minority districts to strengthen white D seats,” the memo notes. In Georgia, “litigation would result in better state house map if deviations in D produced house map are as bad as 2000 cycle.”
By July 2013, Hofeller already had his eyes on the 2021 cycle and cautioned party leaders not to repeat mistakes of previous decades. In a memo addressed to to RNC counsel John Phillippe, Hofeller urged Republicans to begin collecting voter data and continue training mapmakers for the next round of redistricting.
A redistricting database, Hofeller reminded Phillippe, must be more detailed than the voter files candidates use to target potential supporters. “Redistricting data must be more comprehensive and accurate so that statistics derived from the data can hold up in court,” he wrote. “All the registration and election data must also be geographically matched to census geographic units — usually at the census block level. Once again, this is a more exacting standard than typically required for campaign use.”
The December 2014 memo that linked GOP redistricting and the Voting Rights Act also envisioned the Democratic response and the racial gerrymandering litigation that is still playing out in federal courts.
Democrats, according to the memo, would litigate against these maps by arguing that minority candidates could win without representing 50 percent of a district’s population, and instead would argue that minority voters could win a congressional seat with as little as 30 or 40 percent of the population in many states:
Subsequently, Democrats have turned to state and federal courts in an attempt to claw back their lost districts by trying to convince courts that majority-minority districts are not required by the Voting Rights Act. Democrats are seeking to establish new law which will mandate minority voters the right to maximize their votes, as DEMOCRATS, by substituting “influence”, “crossover” and “coalition” districts with minority percentages in the 30s and 40s for majority-minority districts in excess of 50% minority populations.
In Alabama, the Democrats are even attempting to convince the United States Supreme Court that minority districts should be deliberately underpopulated to allow Democrat-rich minority voters to be spread out into neighboring districts to aid in the election of more white Democrat legislators and members of Congress.
He suggested that would be the next — and expensive — battleground.
“We must win or hold our own in this redistricting legal battle or the maps drawn in the next cycle (2021) will be considerable less favorable to the GOP. Like it or not the 2010 redistricting process is far from complete, and the Democrats would gleefully celebrate our abandonment of the battle field just as Obama abandoned our military gains in Iraq.”
“Redistricting is one of the most profitable and business like investments that the GOP can make. Even if it results in only the gain or preservation of one or two additional congressional seats for 10 years, it is more that worth this investment.”
Thomas Hofeller and GOP strategists experimented with using race as the primary factor in drawing districts in Alabama, Florida, and West Virginia.
The reach of late Republican gerrymandering mastermind Thomas Hofeller may be longer than previously known, according to a review of thousands of documents and emails culled from his hard drives, obtained by The Intercept. While Hofeller was known for drawing maps to give Republicans an advantage and to limit the impact of voters of color in North Carolina, Texas, Missouri, and Virginia, the new documents reveal he also participated in the 2010 redistricting cycle in Alabama, Florida, and West Virginia.
And, in those three states, it appears Hofeller and other Republican mapmakers experimented with using race as the primary factor in drawing districts in these states — a tactic ruled unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which requires that people in similar circumstances be treated the same under the law. Among the trove of over 70,000 documents are draft maps with voter data broken down by race, spreadsheets that include the home addresses of members of Congress, travel plans, and legislation marked up by Hofeller himself.
Hofeller’s files reveal the sophisticated racial data that drove GOP mapmaking in several states, potentially opening new avenues for litigation.
These new documents shed additional light on the coordinated national strategy behind maps that locked in a GOP advantage in Congress and in state legislatures nationwide. They reveal the sophisticated racial data that drove GOP mapmaking in several states, potentially opening new avenues for litigation challenging these plans as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders — including one Alabama case that will be heard in a U.S. district court in seven weeks — or as violations of state constitutional protections of free and fair elections. And they show that Hofeller intentionally failed to disclose his involvement in Florida redistricting in an affidavit filed with a court.
Taken together, these revelations provide a powerful wake-up call ahead of the next round of redistricting, which will begin in 2021, about how determined and effective strategists, armed with voluminous voter data, can tilt the political playing field for a decade.
In Alabama, meanwhile, files from backups of Hofeller’s hard drives reveal that he was involved in the 2010 redistricting cycle from the very beginning, long before the first district was drawn.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Alabama state legislative maps as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander in 2015, finding that Republican legislators — in a signature Hofeller move — intentionally packed minority voters into as few districts as possible, creating a handful of overwhelmingly black districts and strengthening Republican prospects elsewhere. Hofeller’s involvement, however, was unknown.
Meanwhile, a potential racial gerrymander of the state’s congressional districts is still being litigated: A federal district court will hear arguments in Chestnut v. Jones beginning November 4.
Hofeller edited and advised on a document called the “Reapportionment Committee Guidelines for Legislative, State Board of Education, and Congressional Redistricting State of Alabama,” the legislature’s starting point for the 2011 redistricting.
According to Hofeller’s email, he met with and shared these edits with the chair of the Alabama state House redistricting commission, Rep. Jim McClendon. McClendon wrote and received these emails at his personal account and not an official legislative address. A document saved as “Guidelines with Tom’s further comments” includes his line-by-line edits and changes. Additional emails referencing these guidelines copied Hofeller’s partner, Dale Oldham, and another copied then-RNC general counsel and national committee member John Ryder.
A folder with the name “Alabama” includes a five-year estimate of citizen voting-age population, along with a document titled “Minority Districts in 2012 Alabama Legislative Redistricting.” Hofeller’s files also include a spreadsheet with information on Alabama citizenship estimates, broken down by race, as well as a link to census information saved in a Microsoft Word document with the name “Alabama 18 and older race link.”
The upcoming litigation, brought by eight Alabama voters, asserts that Republicans packed black voters into one congressional district, the 7th, and then effectively scattered the state’s remaining black voters in such small concentrations as to dilute their voting power. Hofeller’s involvement with McClendon, the racial data he collected — and his history of drawing maps in Virginia and North Carolina later found to be racial gerrymanders with precisely this pattern — could be relevant to ongoing questions and litigation about racially motivated gerrymandering.
The relevant documents are available here:
Inside Hofeller’s folder labeled “Alabama”:
In Florida, the documents raise questions about whether Hofeller intentionally failed to disclose his involvement with GOP redistricting operatives in a 2013 affidavit in which he attested he had no contact with GOP legislators or staff who drew that state’s maps.
Hofeller died in August 2018. But his willingness to avoid disclosing highly relevant information in this affidavit could affect the discovery process in other states where litigation is still pending, and where Hofeller may have been involved. And it creates the opportunity for legal teams in previous cases to petition courts to reopen discovery if the full extent of Hofeller’s participation was discoverable but not revealed.
That litigation, brought by the state’s League of Women Voters, alleged that Republican strategists drew partisan maps behind closed doors, then smuggled them into the public process, in violation of two state constitutional amendments mandating nonpartisan redistricting.
Hofeller’s affidavit, dated March 8, 2013, swears that, “To the best of my recollection, I have not been in contact, or exchanged data or maps, with any Florida legislators or members of their staffs, concerning Florida redistricting since the release of the Census Bureau’s 2010 Decennial Redistricting File in early 2011.”
According to an email chain between Hofeller and two top Florida GOP strategists, Hofeller flew to Tallahassee for meetings on October 10 and 11, 2011. The emails include Hofeller and Sunshine State operatives Frank Terraferma and Rich Heffley, and were sent to Hofeller at an address named “Tom Hofeller – redistricting.” Terraferma sent this email from his official Republican Party of Florida account, as the three strategists finalized travel details. Hofeller may not have been communicating directly with legislators, but he was meeting with the party officials who were actually drawing the maps and helping funnel them into the legislative process.
Hofeller may not have been communicating directly with legislators, but he was meeting with the party officials who were actually drawing the maps.
Evidence produced during the Florida trial showed that, in the same month, the two Republican consultants traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with veteran GOP election lawyer Ben Ginsberg, and days later, shared nearly completed state Senate maps. And during the last week of October, the consultants finalized the congressional maps, and then completed work on the state Senate maps by mid-November. Emails that came to light during the trial showed the operatives’ determination to use racial data to pack as many minority voters as they could into as few districts as possible.
And, in a newly surfaced email in May 2012, Terraferma sent Heffley, Hofeller, and others an email saying, “We got pre-cleared today BTW,” and linking to a Miami Herald article approving pre-clearance of redistricting maps. At the time, pre-clearance was required under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, where there was a history of voter discrimination. “This is very good news,” Hofeller wrote, forwarding the message on to other redistricting specialists at the RNC.
Hofeller’s files, meanwhile, include mapping software programmed with the addresses of Florida incumbents — as well as a spreadsheet from July 2011 named “Florida Minority Senate Data.” While the rows are not labeled, they appear to show minority voting strength across a dozen state Senate districts.
The final maps adopted by the legislature included several districts identical to ones drawn by Terraferma (that surfaced during the Florida trial), but submitted under the name of a former Republican Party intern, who later denied any knowledge of the maps. (Terraferma and Heffley did not respond to a request for comment but during testimony asserted they drew these maps as a “hobby.”) In 2014, a Florida circuit judge invalidated many of these districts, ruling that overwhelming circumstantial evidence demonstrated that GOP operatives had conducted a secret, shadow redistricting process in violation of the state constitution.
The relevant documents are available here:
Hofeller also possessed maps of the Charleston, West Virginia, metro area color-coded by race. One map shows the percentage of voting-age black citizens block by block. There has never been any previous indication that Hofeller was involved in drawing West Virginia maps.
“This would be beyond the pale,” said Rick Martin, president of the NAACP’s Charleston branch. “This is all a strategy designed to weaken and in many instances negate the vote of African Americans and also poor people.”