Charlie: Jensen McRae’s song “My Ego Does at the End”
Claire: Gaslit on Starz
Nichole: Woman King movie
Go on the journey with us to learn more about redistricting and gerrymandering with voting rights activist Charlie Bonner. It’s a winding road filled with confusing requirements and jargon. However, Charlie explains it well and does his best to simplify this very important part of our elections process. You may come in confused, but because of Charlie’s indomitable spirit, you will leave reinvigorated and empowered to engage with your community for the sake of democracy!
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We Ask Charlie Bonner – Do We Pick Our Politicians Or Do They Pick Us? (Elections)
We’re super excited to have you here for this episode. We spoke with Charlie Bonner and he is a fascinating person. He is a youth rights voting advocate and a communication expert on all things voting and civic engagement. We wanted him to come on the show and chat with us about this process called redistricting, which also ties into gerrymandering, which is both very confusing.
Luckily, Charlie’s a great communicator and he helped walk us through these complicated processes in a way that I hope is illuminating and helps you understand a little bit more about how it impacts your vote because it does and that’s why it’s important for us to pause and talk about the mechanics of how your district alliances are drawn and who is your representative. Nichole, what is still at the top of your mind for you after our chat with Charlie?
I do want people to understand that maybe you will understand it the first time through when you read, but it is also possible that you might want to give it a second read. He explains well. He is very easy to understand, yet I think it’s just a function of what redistricting and gerrymandering are that it was going to require another read to wrap my mind around it all.
I do want to emphasize the importance of reading no matter how many times because we keep talking about these invisible systems and these mechanisms. The way all of this works and having a sense of it does matter because I know that it will remind me why my vote and getting out and voting in every election is so essential.
Yes, that’s very well said. It’s another thing that’s like, “It’s another mechanism making. This seems complicated and hard, but at least we’re having some clarity and shining some light on it so that we understand it a little bit better. It makes more sense when you’re like, “Why is my district so red? Why is my district so blue?” There’s a reason for that and hopefully, by us having this talk, you’ll understand it a little bit better and that can empower you to go vote more.
Also, when this redistricting process comes around, have your voice heard if you have the time and you want to make that a priority of yours. Sit back and listen. Let us know what you think. This is great information. It’s a lot to digest, but as Nichole said, it might be one that you read a few times. I’m going to read it probably 3 or 4 times and I’ll be a little bit smarter after reading it. I hope you enjoy it.
We’re very excited about this conversation with Charlie Bonner. We have heard from many people that you’re the person to talk to about redistricting, so we’re so glad that you are able to chat with us and fill us in on what this seemingly complicated thing is. Also, we know that you’re a great communicator, so you’re going to help illuminate this topic. Charlie, when we get our conversations going, we always like to start with people’s origin stories and understand a little bit about them, where they come from, and how they got into politics. Tell us, are you from Texas? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Arlington, Texas. My family has been here since the jump. I’m a seventh-generation Texan. It’s something that’s always been very important to our family, even though we moved to Virginia when I was growing up. That’s where I got my start in politics volunteering on the first Obama campaign in 2008. I was twelve years old. I had an amazing civics teacher in middle school who encouraged me because she saw how much I loved the class. If this is something that I was interested in, the only way to learn it is to go and be in the room where the work is happening.
I showed up with my mom and started making posters. I work at the front desk at the office and then was shortly thereafter making phone calls, knocking on doors and asking people to vote on my behalf as a young person who had a vested interest in this but couldn’t cast a ballot myself. So much of that time, I fell in love with that work and with the people because it was something so much bigger than myself.
I was a young person that was trying to find my place. I was trying to find my passion somewhere where I could fit in. Those campaign offices were full of people from every walk of life, particularly that first Obama campaign. There was such a special feeling there. There was some magic that was happening that there were people from every aspect of life who were there giving their time and their talents. Also, doing whatever it was that they could, whether it was knocking on those doors and helping folks realize where their polling place was or making food for the office because that’s what you could do.
Also, donating office supplies. People were coming together to make it work and it changed my life to see that. To see people working together in that way who may have never known each other if not for that campaign office, even though they were neighbors. Even though we shared a city together, we could come together and build something bigger than ourselves.
As a result, I have stayed involved ever since and have been involved in campaign and voting rights advocacy work ever since under that same notion that the civics teacher who got me involved in politics helped me to find my voice. It changed my life to be able to have a purpose and to be able to see that helping people vote can unlock their power. It is what I’ve now committed my life to in the same way that she changed my life.
I hope that every person that we register, every person that we break down this wonky process for, so they have a little bit more information, that there’s real power in that. That power is not only connected to elections. That is a personal power that’s about how you feel about yourself and your community. That’s why I do this work and I’ve stayed doing this since that young age.There is real power in every registered voter. This is not only connected to elections but also to how they feel about themselves and their community. Click To Tweet
I think you’re a first Charlie. I feel like the connective piece in our other interviews has been people who have had an issue that animates them and gets them started. It’s typically in adulthood. It’s fascinating that even at the young age of twelve, you were ignited in that way. Also, I just have to toss in. A sixth-generation Texan over here. I was told I was seventh by my grandmother, but my mom and I traced it back and it’s sixth, but we never told her. We let her believe that it was the seventh.
I’m like, “Should I believe any of the stories about Texas that my grandfather had told us?” I’m not sure.
You just should.
Texas storytelling needs no fact-checking.
History is a story we tell ourselves or whatever. The twelve-year-old you are invigorated by your civics class. Was there something specific in that class that lit you up that you recall like, “This is how we change the world?”
In part, just an incredible teacher. I was lucky that I have one of those teachers that every student deserves but far too many never have. That is somebody who could take something. I don’t even think we took civics for a full year. It was a part-time class in a study hall that had too many people in the room. There were not enough seats for everybody. It was that situation, but you had a teacher who knew that grounding our education in civics makes it where it’s practical.
It makes it so that you can do something with the information that you’re learning. For me, it was more the idea of the whole thing. That once you got into the mechanics of learning about civics and around learning about politics, it is everyday people who are showing up every day and trying to do right by their neighbors. That is what politics is at its core. We make it so much more than it is in the dog fights, the polling, the parties, and all these things, but at the end of it, it’s normal people like all of us who are showing up.
This country was built on the idea that everyday people, regardless of where they come from or how much money they make, could make a difference if they showed up. As a person who was trying to find their place and find their voice, that was life-changing for me. That this huge institution that we call the government, that we call American politics comes down to the everyday people who show up. It tore down a lot of barriers to engagement for me and that is how I was able to get involved. That’s how I think a lot of the work that we do still is about tearing down those information barriers as a first step to help people get involved.
Yeah, I appreciate you saying that because I think what we’re trying to do in this show is help people reclaim that power and understand how democracy should work but does work. It is why we’re excited to talk about redistricting and gerrymandering because it muddies the waters a lot in an unfortunate way. Before we get to that and leave our childhood, we’re curious. Did you grow up with parents who were politically involved? When you said, “I want to go knock on doors for Obama,” were they already like, “Great. We love Obama,” or were they like, “Okay. That sounds interesting.”
My mom has always been a campaign volunteer type. She’s always been that person. I think when I showed up, she was like, “Okay. Interesting.” This is a new turn for this, but it ended up being one of the great things that we did together for years and that we still do together. My mom and I are a very good canvassing team, particularly. We are very efficient, having started from a young age before I could drive. She would drive the car. I would run out of the car and knock on the doors. We still try to do that when we can over the years but year, but my family has an influence on that.
Over the years, as I got more involved even more, my family got more involved. By the end of the Obama years, it felt like every Bonner was involved in some way in doing something that they could, whether it was my mom driving the car during canvas, my dad entering data, me talking to the voters and my brother joining the campaign with my sister. We’re all trying to do something that we could and I think it’s an important part of who my family is.
For some reason, I think people think because I got involved at a young age that, they have some vision that my parents were elected officials or something like that. That’s how kids get involved in it, like when your parents run, but there is something. I was like, “My mom was a person who liked knocking on doors and making phone calls. I knew that was a place where she could make a difference. I think that being the core of what we did as a family like volunteer work and doing community building as part of that is much more influential than anything political.
I like the idea of political activation being infectious because I’m seeing that right now happen in my family. Since I’ve started working on this show with Claire, my mom has become activated, too and is asking a lot of questions. I can see things starting to bubble up. I’m just putting that out there to other people who are reading.
It’s a slippery slope to get everybody involved. Also, there is something I’ve seen and I’ve seen happen in so many people that when you get involved in this work, part of what happens too is you become a trusted source for your friends and your family on this information. There are a lot of people who want to be involved in politics, want to vote, and want to make a difference and genuinely don’t know how. The world feels so overwhelming these days for so many very valid reasons.
It can be difficult for people to make that jump to figure out how to get involved. I think one of the great privileges of my life is that around this time every year, in September and October, people know that they can come out of the woodwork. It does not matter if you have not texted me since we were in high school. If you text me and ask me a question about the election, I will make sure that you get the information that you need. There is something so heartening to me. It is moving to me that people trust me enough that this is a sacred obligation I believe that all of us have and that I have people in my life that would look to me for that information. It means a lot to me and I take that responsibility seriously.
The people who get involved in politics in this way are infectious because now I know that there are other people that are taking on that role too. When we share information, we’re also making it so that our friends and family can share that with their friends and family. There are ripple effects and this is how we make a difference. It could feel like that one phone call from your friend from college, asking you how to find their polling location, may be a waste of your five minutes. That could feel like something that maybe they can Google but maybe if you give them that link, they’re putting it in their group chats too. They’re sharing it on their social media.
You don’t know the reach that information can have. Also, that person feels a little bit more comfortable being involved in the process because you personalized it. You made sure that they felt welcome to this. Many folks never feel welcome in our politics and elections. Anything that we can do to spread that power to share that information makes a big difference.
With this show, the big thing we want to do is amplify voices like your own and other guest experts that we bring on because we know that you all are trusted resources, so we can help amplify that message. You never know who’s going to stumble across the show, but I had a neighbor tell me the other day at a birthday party that they shared an episode we did with Dr. Tielle, the superintendent of our district in this mom’s kindergarten group and they were discussing it.
I was like, “That’s cool to know that I don’t know all those moms, but the fact that, that we are helping shape their thoughts on how the school operates is nice and that this is touching people in a positive way. You got to do it, person, by a person. It is that personal touch that can make a difference. With that said, something that I want to touch on before we get into redistricting that you shared with us in your guest intake form was this project that you did when you were a student at UT called “A Republic, if you can keep it,” Tell us a little bit about that because it made me stop and scratch my head and wonder what it was all about.
For my senior thesis in college, I decided I was not particularly interested in spending a lot of time in the library as it was not the thing that I like. I was trying to think about what it is that I like about politics and voting and all these sorts of things. The core of it for me is the people and getting to interact with so many people. Try to understand very complicated people who we ask every day to make complicated political decisions. It seems so simple, but when you start talking to people, nothing is very simple.
I traveled 10,000 miles across the country and my burnt orange Jeep Wrangler. I went coast to coast and border to border and would sit in coffee shops and bars and at Trump rallies and political meet and greets all over the country. I try to have conversations with people about what politics and democracy meant to them. Also, in a meta way, having conversations about political conversations. Do people feel like they could talk to their friends and neighbors about politics because we see there are some interesting theories about how our government is set up to create discussion?
If the discussion is not happening, is politics working? Like, Is democracy working if the conversation itself cannot happen? For so many reasons of polarization and of the ways that we isolate ourselves, the tunnel vision and all the echo chambers in between, we are not very good at having the political conversation anymore. What was so interesting is that many of those same folks who said they couldn’t have that conversation with their friends or family were very comfortable having it with me as a stranger.
They wanted an outlet to speak about politics. They wanted someone to know how they felt about what was going on even if they didn’t feel like they could tell their friends. There’s something in there about where we are as a country right now and how the needs that people have to be heard and the ways that we are siphoning that off. It was a very interesting and absolutely life-changing couple of months of truly getting in and having those difficult conversations with people.
You alluded to one what sounds like one of your big conclusions. If you had the top three things that you took away from that project, what would they be?
In part, people are absolutely more complicated than we will ever give them credit for. Having a really broad conversation about people’s politics, any education level of any political party will bring up logical and things that do not match up. Things that contradict one another. Parts of yourself that come from your identity, place, or family tradition don’t match where you are now.
There are complicated things going on in people’s heads about how they make those political decisions. I think we don’t always give a lot of space for how complicated that is and for the ways that people are trying to make those decisions even below the surface level. Not even logically, always. That was a big part of what I saw.
There were also some interesting things about attending Trump rallies and attending some political events and having conversations with some folks across the aisle. Not only are moderate across the aisle but some across-the-aisle things. In part one, I live-blogged this trip. We had engagement on social and people felt engaged in the conversations that I was having as well. There were also people that were not very happy that I was going to Trump rallies. That I was trying to have conversations with these folks or, in part, elevate their voices and their perspectives which there were many problematic things in their voices and in the perspectives that they were providing.
Me, as a practitioner of this work, someone who is trying to pass policies and to connect with voters every day, I also found that there are not very many people that work in politics that have access to voters that they do not agree or that are ever engaging seriously with voters that are not of the base that they are mobilizing.
Even voters, people, humans, friends or whatever and even well-intentionally we other people by doing that. We dehumanize people by doing that. This is a system built on everyday people and that has to value their humanity even when they’re making illogical decisions and even when they’re making decisions not against their interest or anyone’s interest. There is a human nature to it that I think sometimes we lose and we reduced it to education.
We don’t agree with them, so there’s something wrong with them. Instead of thinking about how people are making decisions or what in people’s lives has led them, I try not to say this in some overly sympathetic way. There are real ramifications for voting against people’s interests. We voted against people’s humanities and people are losing rights. I’m very well aware of the very real-life implications that this has for people, but I also think that so much of what we do is gamify the system and put it into polls. We put it into all these things that voters become numbers and polls instead of individuals making decisions.
That is so often what we do and in the conversations that I had with so many people, they feel that. They do not feel the autonomy of their vote. They feel that they are part of this mass thing and I think that has a lot of problems that we’re already seeing, but I think that only grows as this media landscape pushes that even further. That was a lot of thought. That was a long trip.
One thing I’ll add that I heard from your summary of “A Republic, if you can keep it,” was it sounds like there’s a big appetite to talk about these political things and people don’t have an outlet, so they’re willing to talk to a stranger on what they thought.
It’s like, “How do we open a room for that? How do we build spaces for that and to meet people that do not agree with you in real ways?” Not in like, “We’re going to have one dinner once a year where we talk with someone.” The thing is, it has to be non-political. It has to be that we are in communities that are of diverse interest and diverse lived experiences and all these things. In part, what we can talk about with redistricting today too is there is a huge shift in folks over the past several decades consolidating political power like themselves. There is not much diversity of political thought in your ZIP code compared to 20 to 30 years ago.
There are ways in which even that is changing and there’s obviously a ton of things demographically that move into that redistricting. Forcing that in certain circumstances as well, but also, we have a natural bias to want to be with people, be near people who have our lived experiences and share our values. Those things too. There are many benefits to that, but one of the great drawbacks is that your neighbor likely does not have a different political view than you in the same way that they may have 30 years ago.
It means you are not having to go to their kid’s birthday party and have a civil discussion that then turns into a political discussion. Instead, we are only having that political discussion and then trying to put humanity back onto it instead of having those human experiences with folks and then the politics and lived experience. That part of it is secondary. It has to, in part, be upfront because we are not connected to one another.
I’m going to have to think on that one, Charlie. I want to think through that order that you’ve thrown out there. That’s interesting. I don’t want to derail.
We think about curiosity, but it’s hard because you have to train yourself to ask these questions in a way that opens up curiosity and dialogue and we don’t do that or if we do, we’re on the same page. We’re like, “Okay, moving on.” We want to grow, so we are going to have to get a little uncomfortable with this and that’s okay because something better will come out of it.
On that same note, before we switch to redistricting, too, a lot of what we were talking about was civility in politics and how that goes into your ability to have those political conversations. One of my favorite things that I found while doing the research for the trip is there’s a researcher out of Oxford who writes about civility and writes about how we need to shift and how we understand civility. Because I think so often, when we’re talking about civility in politics, we’re saying, “That person needs to stop yelling at me. That person needs to like tone it down. Those people over there need to get it together and be able to have a civil discussion with me before I’m willing to engage.”
One, there’s always a power structure involved in that. Who gets to decide what’s civil and what’s not civil? What we have seen is that rules of civility are used against women and people of color to silence them and say that the ways that they express themselves do not fit into what we think is civil. That is used to silence people.
What this researcher talks about is that we have to shift our idea of civility to be about us and our own ability to stay in the conversation and our commitment to staying in the conversation. It does not matter what you say about your politics to me. I’m going to be there to engage with you on it. If you are willing to come to the table and even if I don’t agree with anything you’re saying, it is about me and my ability to do that.It doesn't matter what other people say about politics. If they are willing to come to the table despite having a different opinion, continue engaging with them. Click To Tweet
There are lots of factors that fit into this. There are some ways in which political conversation can be actively dangerous to folks and I think that is a real thing, as I know as a queer person in Texas. There are sometimes when you’re like, “We’re going to tap the breaks on this before we go any further,” but I think starting to think about what that means. Stop putting the onus of civility on other people and like, “What are we doing to ourselves to make our own commitments to stay in this to have those difficult conversations to have things said? What is our own engagement level that we’re willing to commit to and how do we fortify ourselves to have those conversations? That’s something that I think a lot about, even if there’s not a great answer to how to do it.
That radically changed my thinking.
This makes me think about Robert’s Rules of Order and I have a serious beef with the civility of it, but it is what we have, unfortunately. That’s for another day. For this episode, we did want to get into redistricting and this is our election series. We’re helping people understand that elections are so much bigger than just voting. It’s the mechanics of voting and these rules that are in place that affect the vote that you’re going to cast. Can you tell us what is redistricting and, and also, what is the difference between redistricting and gerrymandering because they do live in the same space?
Redistricting is a process by which we’re drawing all of the lines that determine what district we live in and who we actually are going to vote for. When you’re registering to vote, you’re putting that address and you put that address because where you live matters for who represents you. We often think about this in Congress. I think that’s where a lot of the gerrymandering and redistricting conversation happens, but this is happening at basically every level. From your school board, there are redistricting lines drawn there, the state legislature and even the judges that are local to you. All of that is determined by where you live.
Somebody has to draw those lines. Somebody has to make the determination of who living where is going to vote for who. That is the redistricting process. The process by which we are drawing those lines and always follows the census. It’s every ten years after the census, which I think, as we talk about redistricting, this year is particularly important. We can talk about what a mess the census was in 2020 and how that affected redistricting, but it always follows that census process. That’s to me, when redistricting starts is when we start sending those census forms out across the country. Following that, state legislatures across the country then go in and are required to use that census data to draw out the maps of how political power is divided.
I would say redistricting and gerrymandering often mean the same thing. Gerrymandering is a bit of a more loaded term, I believe. I think it has a more negative connotation to it about the ways in which redistricting can be used for political power and to fortify political power. I think that is where we get that term from. It’s based on a guy’s name who is actually like Jerry. I think it was Gary and it should be gerrymandering, but that’s a thing for another dairy.
To recap and make sure we’re following you. Every ten years, we have the census. Populations are changing and that’s why we have to redistrict because we have to make sure there’s somewhat of a balance across the board with different elected bodies like with your school board, state representatives and congressional representatives but the people drawing these lines are the people in these positions, at least in Texas.
In most states around the country, state legislatures are doing this. Exactly right here in Texas, the state legislature only meets every other year. As we know by now, this is one of their every ten-year projects they have to come and do this redistricting fight because of those changes. Population changes and where people are moving. We try to balance all of that political power. We have politicians make those decisions. We have politicians who are then on the ballot that they determine by those redistricting. They get to make those decisions. A lot of problems arise from people being able to pick their voters instead of having voters pick them, which is how we all understand democracy to work.
How is this allowed? That seems suspicious.
You’re not wrong. There are a lot of highly suspicious aspects of this and you would be genuinely surprised how much of it occurs behind closed doors. That it is backroom deals being made about some of the most substantial things because, as you said, this is in every ten-year process. This determines a balance of political power in the state for a decade. A lot can happen in a decade. The population in Texas over the past ten years has skyrocketed.
One of the things that we see these changes in the past ten years is that 95% of the growth in Texas came from communities of color. If we had a system that worked, that would mean that 95% of the changes in political power would be centered around people of color. That is not what happens in Texas because we have folks that are drawing these lines that are interested in their own power and holding onto their own offices rather than making sure that every Texan is adequately represented.
We have a broken system. We have a system that does not work for the voters. It only works for politicians. This makes it where we have a state that doesn’t work. In many circumstances, it makes it so that we don’t have a democracy that we cannot take action on issues that people care about because they are not being represented by the people that sit in those offices.
It’s easy to draw a line to the apathy when we start looking at the numbers of people who vote and the people who decide to sit out. I’m curious. This is a question that we also asked of Pam Bixby from the League of Women Voters and we asked it of Emily Eby from the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is how do you justify the ways that these decisions are currently being made? How do you make that case or is it that you don’t have to make the case to the public for why you’ve done what you’ve done? The people in power who are making these choices. I’m just trying to wrap my mind around how you are your own PR people for how that is fair and how that makes sense or do you not do that?
You would be surprised by how little they defend what they’re doing here, particularly as it comes to redistricting, which the Texas maps for the past several decades have been under litigation because they have had a disproportionately negative effect on diluting the political power of people of color in Texas. That’s been going on for a long time. We have a legal system that is saying, “This thing you are doing is breaking the law.
This is violating the constitution and still, there is a disconnect between the voters. That in part, this is such a wonky system that I think many Americans have no idea how those lines are drawn. You register to vote. You get the thing. You say, “These are the ten people that are going to be on your ballot and we accept that.” Part of what I think is critical about the work that we do is helping people poke holes in all of this, even registering to vote. We accept registering to vote as a concept which is fine.
It was a completely made-up concept to keep people from voting. Voter registration is a tool of voter suppression, but we live in a system where we have to right now. We have to register to vote. Eventually, we can hold power and tear down that system. I think redistricting follows these same things. This is a very broken system that we know dilutes political power, but when we’re talking about that apathy and you’re absolutely correct. This is one of the things that can make you feel hopeless to look at sometimes how popular policies aren’t passed.
Let’s just talk about gun violence prevention. Take something like background checks that the vast majority of Americans support, but we have maps drawn in Texas that fortify people’s power. It makes it, so they don’t have to win in a general election. They need to win in a primary because they have drawn that district in such a way in someone from their party is always going to win that primary. What that does and then that says, “Half of the voters, you do not matter to me anymore. Goodbye. If the people I need to speak to get elected are only showing up in political primaries, those are the people that I’m going to speak to.”
That discounts the voices of the vast majority of people. We are now dealing instead with not even half the population and not even half the voters. We are dealing with a microcosm of the electorate who shows up to vote in primaries. That then becomes, on both sides, the most committed people. On this gun violence issue, we’ll say particularly on a Republican primary in Texas. Those folks are skewing much older, much wider, much more affluent than the vast majority of the population.
We have politicians that are only catering to this very narrow subset of the population instead of the vast majority of us who support reasonable things like background checks. This is how redistricting stops popular policies from getting past and it is radicalizing our politics. We have politicians who want to be primary champions instead of people who are trying to get votes from all walks of life, from all parts of your community, so you get real solutions.We have politicians who only want to be Primary champions. They don't even try to get votes from all walks of life and all parts of the community to come up with real solutions. Click To Tweet
Because you have to go out and you have to earn it. I think when we think about the impact of this as well by really earning it, part of what happens in this redistricting is that we get these insane districts that stretch for hours across Texas and there’s no shared life experience or resources or anything between folks that can live in the same congressional district. You have folks that maybe represented part of Austin and our rural Republican congressperson. They’re not coming to Austin. They haven’t been to Austin in years.
They do not consider the people who live here that do not vote for them in the general election to be of concern to them. That has those policy problems, but a congress office is supposed to support you on a great deal of things like getting your passport and all these sorts of things. If you have people who do not care about you and your community, all those functions start to break down.
You’re talking about the mechanics of drawing the map and that makes me think of this expression I heard when I was at Annie’s training, which was cracking and packing. I had never understood what that was. Can you explain to us what that looks like and how that is part of the gerrymandering machine?
That is the process. Essentially, as we were talking about, there are folks that congregate in communities that are similar to one another. Cracking and packing are how we end up with these crazily drawn districts that look like a number of things. That there is a lot of great internet content around how dumb all these districts are shaped is because what they’re trying to do is crack and split a community apart to dilute their power. The best example I have of this is for years, I lived in Austin. I worked with a lot of students in Austin. UT students in Austin could live in essentially five different congressional districts. What they did is they took a community that lives quite close to one another around a campus.
It was very clear that in a city like Austin, these young voters have a particular political persuasion. Lines are very carefully drawn to crack that community apart and to make it so that no one representative has to represent the students. If only a few students live in every district, there’s nobody that has to be responsive to the students because it makes it where those students are not the determining voters in any single one of those elections.
Conversely, in packing you can do a similar thing. Take a community somewhere in Dallas. It might be that if there are so many Black and Latinx voters in particular neighborhoods, they could influence multiple elections. Sometimes, what they’ll do is draw a crazy district that puts all those folks in one district. It gives them a safe spot when they probably could have influenced several different elections. They had enough power in numbers to influence a great deal and were all put into one place.
That’s a little bit of how that cracking and packing works and how we get all these very wonkily drawn lines. There are people whose job is to go by neighborhood by neighborhood to determine what kind of folks live in those neighborhoods. What their political persuasion could be, not just now but in years from now and are going street by street to try and draw those lines. To have them be essentially to fortify power for the folks that are in charge.
In Texas right now, that’s the Republican Party. They’re doing everything that they can as carefully as possible craft that to hold on to that power and make it where essentially they have in many senses in Texas right now, made it where there are very few competitive seats. There are seats that Democrats are going to win. There is a certain amount that Democrats are going to win and there is a certain amount that Republicans are going to win. Generally, we think about seats being up for grabs. Every election should be a competitive election. The reality that it creates is that we have very few elections in Texas right now that are up for grabs even.
My brain hurts.
It does a little bit break your brain.
My brain is breaking and what it is, is that I want our podcast to be super accessible. For somebody who maybe is a little bit of a political dabbler to somebody who this is new territory for them. What I’m thinking the whole time as I’m listening to you, Charlie, you’re making it, so it’s easy to understand, but at the same time, it also feels impossible to understand.
Part of that for me is that I don’t want to accuse this of being intentional, but here I go. I’m about to accuse that this is intentional. That these systems that are invisible have such a deep effect on the ways that people can feel empowered to engage. This issue, in particular redistricting/gerrymandering, is one of those that is incredibly disempowering, invisible and frustrating. I want to make sure that somebody who’s reading hasn’t tuned out at this point, who isn’t like, “I do not understand all this stuff. Forget it. It’s frustrating. I’m out.”
That and Nichole, I feel like there’s so much that’s broken. The redistricting process is broken and even voting in Texas feels very broken. It’s like, “Where do you even start to fix this?”
How was no money put into the census in Texas? I keep thinking, “Where do you start?” It’s like you walk into a house that’s covered in filth and you walk right out because you’re like, “I can’t. This is too much.” It’s like your friends when you get together.
As someone that does this work, these are the conversations we’re having with each other every day. This is difficult work to sustain in a state like Texas because there are so many obstacles that stand in front of us but what I try to remind myself and what I try to remind everyone of is that every single vote matters. I don’t say that in the way that a lot of people say. I don’t mean that one single vote is going to determine every election.
What I mean is that every single time we register someone to vote, every single time that person shows up, they are taking a little bit of autonomy over their own life in a world that is very confusing and in a political system that seeks to confuse us and seeks to silence us. Every single time someone shows up and says, “I get to have a say in this and that my lived experience matters. That my family’s lives matter and that we get to determine the future.”
Even if we do not win, showing up every single time and taking that little bit of ownership over the future matters to your own well-being. It matters to your community. Even when all of these obstacles, even if we lost elections for another 100 years, we won’t and won’t let happen. Even if we did, every single person that we registered mattered because that is how we help someone seize their power. I know that changes someone’s life regardless of who wins or loses an election.
You cannot take that power away from someone when you help them realize the impact that they can have. When you help them realize their place in a community and the ownership that they have over a community, it is always going to matter. Even when these processes are wonky and they are, both redistricting and the legislative process in general always have portions that are open to the public.
One of the ways that we help is by showing up. We show up and we speak out. It is not always easy to do this and Texas makes it intentionally difficult to do this as well. You got to be in person in Austin at a specific time and date when these hearings are to be counted in certain ways. I always feel so motivated. So many of the voting rights-specific hearings that we had last year, almost all of them, lasted longer than 24 hours straight. That means you were showing up to the capitol at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. For those of us that can, stay until they call your name so you can give your two minutes.
That is not a process that works for everyone, particularly working people, hourly employees and all sorts of things, but we show up for the folks that can’t be there. There are so many people that can’t make their way down to Austin or can’t take off time from work to do that. We go and we try to tell their stories.
We try to confront these elected officials with the reality of what they are doing. Not only the political reality of what they’re doing but how it impacts people’s lives to try to silence them. To try to tell them that their votes and their lived experiences don’t matter. We confront them with that information and I think that always matters. We can talk about the specific ways. Also, that ends up in legal cases.
That person showed up and they shared their stories, and these lawmakers ignored them. They ignored the actual people that lived here and instead, they listen to the special interest groups and all these things that ends up in legal records too. There are good and powerful feelings that can come with this. There are also very real legal implications that happen every time we cast that ballot. Every time we show up, it always matters. Even if we do not win the fight, we are going to win the war because we keep showing up. We’re bringing more people with us every time that we do it.
I know this gets demoralizing because I am demoralized a lot of the time, but I think it’s incumbent on us to remind ourselves, to remind each other when it does get tough and it will get tough again, that we lean on each other. This is something that we do together. We can overcome gerrymandering by showing up in such high numbers of turnout that you screw up all the plans that they made. They are banking on very few Texans showing up in these elections.
If we fundamentally change the electorate, it doesn’t matter how they read through those districts. We can overcome these things if we work together and try to understand the systems to break them down. We can’t allow ourselves to get overwhelmed by the minutia of it, by the bulls*** of the whole thing. They want us to do that. They are trying to confuse us out of action and everything that we can do to break down those barriers is going to make a big difference.
Thank you for saying that. That very much answered a question that we had, which was how can ordinary Texans get more involved. I think it is good to remind people that you should vote in every election you can make it to because every election is going to impact you somehow. Have your voice heard and if you can do more, do more, but some action is better than no action. Where do you think we need to focus our attention to ensure that democracy is protected? Because it seems like these schemes are undermining democracy and undermining our confidence in the system we have.
There are a couple of things here and one is on a meta-level that I think in part with it, you are absolutely correct. What they’re trying to do is undermine our confidence. I will not allow them to undermine my confidence in our system. It’s important to me that we have that conversation with our friends and our families. We talk to them about why we register to vote.
We talk to them about why we show up. Even in the midst of all of these people trying to cast dispersions on what is going to happen and how this democracy works, our trust in the system is the single thing keeping the system going. If the Trump years have shown us anything, it is that the institutions are not as stable as you think they are. There are not as many legal guardrails as you thought there were.
What we have is our trust in the system and our belief that if we show up, our votes will be counted and that, more importantly, whoever loses will concede the election. There is a lot of that and part of that is on all of us. That is about ourselves and what we do and what we talk about because, in part, we have a lot of loud voices casting aspersions on the election and putting conspiracy theories on top of the election.
We in part, need validators for democracy. We need people who believe in and love it and will go out there and talk about it and why it matters. We can’t let people lose faith completely in this system. That is part of it. That’s something that all of us can do. To me, that starts with having conversations about why we show up ourselves and asking our friends, “Are you registered to vote? I’m registered. Can I help you? Here’s why I’m registered this year. I think it’s really important that we show up.”
Another way that is important this year, in particular, for folks who want to take that next step is showing up and being a poll worker. What we are seeing across the country is that there’s a concerted expert to put election deniers into actual elections offices, in part, because we’ve scared out so many people from being election officials with the fear-mongering and the conspiracy theories but also COVID had a real impact on this too. The vast majority of folks that worked the polls are over the age of 65 and those who are the most at risk of COVID.
We saw a great wave of young people stepping up in 2020. Thousands of young people stepped up and served as poll workers for the first time. We need to continue that. Democracy only works when everyday people show up and the mechanisms of voting only work with everyday people showing up. We want to make sure that the right people are in there who value our democracy. That value ensures that every vote is counted. We want to make sure that there are people in those rooms to make sure that it’s possible. Anybody can serve as a poll worker and I think that’s a great way to take the next step into getting involved.The mechanisms of voting only work when everyday people show up. The people in polling places must value democracy and guarantee that every vote is counted. Click To Tweet
Nichole and I were at Trip Fest recently and we heard this panel about redistricting and gerrymandering. One of the speakers, Michael Lee, was talking about this story where a man was like, “I’m going to be a poll worker to prove how easy it is to cheat.” When he was going through the training, he was like, “This is hard.” He had this awakening, like, “I thought you could steal elections, but it turns out you can’t or if you wanted to, you have to be quite the schemer because the way the system’s set up is pretty good,” believe it or not. Nichole, do you have any final thoughts kicking around?
One more thing I wanted to touch on before we move to our last segment was there had been some momentum for a national bill to be changed so that our elections are streamlined and they’re not so state-by-state based like with the redistricting process and with our voting processes. Where’s that at? Do we have any hope in the Federal government saving us?
We have some hope. We have the Voting Rights Act, which a lot of this, the scrutiny that is redistricting comes under is from that 1960s Voting Rights Act that was passed by LBJ and set into place a lot of the standards around the drawing of these districts. That was gutted in part by the Supreme Court in 2013. That took away some of the protections we had for pre-clearance in states that had a long history of racist voter suppression, like Texas, which make it where you have a lot of things approved by the Department of Justice as it pertains to changes in election law.
There are still parts of the Voting Rights Act that are very intact and help to protect us in a lot of different ways. There is that piece of legislation. There’s also the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which sets to draw out what was gutted from the Supreme Court and recodify that in a way that would stand up against that legal scrutiny. That would do a great deal to move things forward and provide this protection.
There’s also the Freedom to Vote Act. Both of these gained a lot of momentum, particularly in part because of the work that was happening in Texas by advocates and by the work that was happening from our lawmakers to raise the voter suppression fight to a national fight and try to push for those national standards to prevent what was happening in Texas. They were not able to do it last summer in time to stop what was happening in Texas, but I do have hope that this is something that’s still very top of mind.
For folks, I think the threats to democracy are becoming very real for people as we see the rise of authoritarian governments across the world and as we see these attacks on freedoms happening, this voting rights fight only intensifies. Those pieces are still moving. I have a lot of hope that we are going to do something about it because we have to do something about it. We have to make sure that we cannot just throw out election systems at the whim of a radical state legislature, which is seeming to be a trend across the country right now.
I didn’t realize that those were the mechanisms.
We want to make a point. We’re trying in our show to be very pro-democracy and non-partisan. We don’t want to bash a certain party and with gerrymandering, I want us to make it clear that very blue and red districts are bad for everyone because a lot of these politicians will become very complacent. They won’t have that urgency to get out and talk to the voters and make sure they have great constituent services because they can take them for granted. This is why everyone should perk up and be on alert because it’s not good for us collectively.
It’s simply bad for democracy to make it where you are not responsive to the electorate or your community as a whole, but only a very small fraction. That’s bad for everyone and not having competitive elections makes turnout lower. It makes people feel like they don’t need to show up and that the outcome is already a given. All of these sorts of things erode our democracy for both parties. We really should be doing more to fortify right now.
Once again, make sure you vote, folks. It is something you can do and it has a lot of power, so don’t take it for granted. Before we let you go, Charlie, we’re going to do our last segment, which is hopefully a fun way to send off the episode, but we like to do our Attention Mentions, which is where we mention something that we can’t stop thinking about like a TV show or a personal experience or you had or an article. It’s something along those lines. Nichole, do you have something that is top of mind?
I want to mention something that I haven’t done yet, but that I’m fired up to do, which by the time this comes out, hopefully, I will have fulfilled. I want to go see the Woman King and I want to take my daughter. I’m ready to like walk out of a theater feeling like, “I am a woman. Hear me roar.” I’m mentioning something that has attention that I haven’t yet done. I’m bending at all here.
I’ve heard great things. Can you think of anything, Charlie?
I have a song that I’m obsessed with right now that is playing on a loop for me. It’s by Jensen McRae, who’s someone that I wasn’t familiar with before this, but I now can’t stop listening to them. It’s a song called My Ego Dies at the End. One of those makes you think and then you got to keep listening to it because you’re thinking about it. It’s been a little mantra for me.
That’s an intriguing title. I’m going to go find that.
We’re going to listen. I don’t know that I recommend this show, but if you have a couple of hours and you’re like, “What should I watch?” Check this one out. I watched Gaslit on STARZ, which stars Julia Roberts about the Watergate scandal. She plays Martha Mitchell, who was the woman married to John Mitchell, the attorney general for Nixon.
I don’t feel like I ever fully understood Watergate until I saw this show because I thought it was this complicated thing that was way above understanding but then you watch it and you’re like, “These guys were idiots and their scheme was stupid. It’s a miracle that they got caught and went to jail,” because you think of the parallels between what’s happening now and with Trump. It’s just like, “I’m probably 30, 40 years from now, I’ll be like, “That’s the show and now I get it.” It’s the same story at different times. It’s history.
Check all those things out. Thank you so much for your time, Charlie. This was a great conversation. I’m sure that Nichole and I are going to read this over and over and catch new things because there’s a lot to stay on top of because it’s complicated, but that’s okay. We’re smart. We can get it and we can make a difference.
Yes, absolutely and there’s nothing wrong with repetition.
The greatest lesson of working in this space, of being in the Texas capital, is that this place is not run by geniuses. This is not some criminal genius mastermind we’re up against over here. In part, what they are relying on is us being disconnected and us being forced out of the system. If we show up and if we educate ourselves in this way, we weren’t growing up. If we educate ourselves and empower ourselves with information, we can fight back against this. We can do this. I know that we can do this together, particularly in a state like Texas.
Thank you for saying that, yes. Because I’ll go to the capitol and see them in their suits and their nice styled hair and I’m like, “I don’t know anything.” I’m like, “I can hold my ground. I went to college too.” You’re right. We have to own our power and not cower because we can be strong just like they are. Thanks again.
- Charlie Bonner
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About Charlie Bonner
Charlie Bonner (26, he/him) is a youth voting rights advocate and communications professional working to engage a new generation of civic leaders. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Charlie majored in government and Plan II Honors where his thesis, A Republic If You Can Jeep It, was awarded the Lois Baird Trice Prize for Creative Scholarship after he drove 10,000 miles across the country to interview strangers about democracy. Charlie has been recognized as an Austinite to Watch by Tribeza Magazine, as a Rising Star by the Austin New Leaders Council, and as a Future of Texas Honoree by Every Texan.