On election night in 2008, President-elect Barack Obama spoke to an exultant crowd about the rebirth of America’s democracy. “If there is anyone out there . . . who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

And while David Daley’s “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy” smacks of more good news about our democratic experiment (at least in its title), the reality turns out to be quite different and darker. The book’s principal focus is the citizen-led, pro-democracy ballot initiatives that played a key role in the 2018 midterms. “Unrigged” is also a thoughtful and important follow-up to Daley’s earlier book, “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.” In that 2016 book, Daley unpacked what the Republican State Leadership Committee did in 2010 with Project REDMAP. And as he makes very clear in “Unrigged,” Americans are still living in a REDMAP world.

REDMAP burst onto the scene after Obama alarmed Republicans by winning the White House. His victory was due in no small part to the fact that for the first time, almost 25 percent of voters were nonwhite. As Brookings Institution demographer William Frey explains, “Since 2000, all of the major minority groups — blacks, Hispanics, Asians — have voted Democratic.” Republicans realized that a new demographic tide was rising against them and that they needed to respond, or face possible political extinction. REDMAP was their answer. This savvy, well-financed 2010 effort targeted down-ballot races to secure Republican control of key state legislatures. It worked — boy, did it work — with some 700 legislative seats turning red in battleground states from North Carolina to Wisconsin.

And 2010 wasn’t your typical midterm year. In 2011, based on the 2010 Census data, these newly elected REDMAP legislatures would redraw their state and congressional voting districts. “Ratf**ked” details just how effectively Republicans did their gerrymandering. A year later, in 2012, Republicans running for Congress received 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats, yet the GOP took control of the House, with a 33-seat majority. That’s the dirty secret of gerrymandering: It neuters the power of the majority.

Indeed, when Obama left office in 2016, the Democratic Party was on virtual life support. Republicans held 69 of 99 state legislative chambers, 33 governorships and a trifecta (the governorship and both legislative houses) in 25 states. Also in 2016, Republicans took control of Congress and the White House. REDMAP had done its job.

In both of his books, Daley depicts Republicans as partisans bent on eviscerating the democratic vision that Obama so nobly enunciated in 2008. Daley maintains that the party of Lincoln willingly embraced gerrymandering and a variety of other vote-suppression tactics, such as voter purges, voter ID laws, reductions in early-voting days and closures of polling places. The goal: discouraging nonwhite and young voters from voting against Republican candidates. But while Daley is appalled by the GOP game plan, he also admits that the Democrats and Obama allowed it to happen. In “Ratf**ked,” he describes the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington as looking like “a partly folded map or an accordion. All of which seems apt, of course, for a party that has been played like one and that badly needs to stop the bleeding and find direction.”

For “Unrigged,” Daley, a former editor of Salon and now a senior fellow at Fair Vote, traveled the country to report on how democracy fared in the REDMAP world of the 2018 midterms. Would Democrats “find direction” and get their mojo back? In fact, the Democrats did win back the House in 2018, with a net gain of 41 seats. However, Daley argues that the real and untold story of the midterms happened in the hinterlands. That’s where grass-roots, citizen-centric activism rose up to counter REDMAP and expand voting rights.

In Florida, against all odds, Desmond Meade, a formerly incarcerated African American, launched the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative. Its goal was to amend the state constitution to reverse a Jim Crow-era statute withholding the vote from more than 1.4 million Florida felons (many of them African American). Meade and his citizen brigade waged a robust, nonpartisan campaign to pass Amendment 4, which would instantly enfranchise most of the state’s felons, except those convicted of murder or sexual crimes.

Amendment 4 seemed, at best, a long shot — a very long shot. It didn’t help that Floridians ended up electing Republicans for both governor and the U.S. Senate in 2018. However, when the ballots were counted, Amendment 4 got 64 percent of the vote, garnering support from Republicans, Democrats and independents. “This is a shining example of how we can get things done in this country,” Meade said, “by shedding the partisan labels and the racial labels and coming together at that sacred space where we are all human.”

Another 2018 citizen-led initiative addressed gerrymandering. This effort was the vision of a 29-year-old political neophyte, Katie Fahey. Although her home state, Michigan, had more registered Democrats than Republicans, the 2011 redistricting disproportionately rewarded Republicans. They ended up with decade-long control of the state government as well as Michigan’s congressional delegation. It is worth noting that Michigan was also a major objective of REDMAP in 2010.

Fahey called her group Voters Not Politicians. “I wanted to talk about fixing stuff, not candidates or political parties,” she told Daley. Her proposed state constitutional amendment would create a nonpartisan commission to redistrict Michigan after the 2020 Census. To get this on the ballot, Fahey needed more than 300,000 signatures and had only six months to do it. With a people’s army responding to her initial Facebook post seeking volunteers, Voters Not Politicians collected some 430,000 signatures in less than four months. Proposal 2, as the initiative was called, met strong resistance from Michigan’s Chamber of Commerce and overcame a legal challenge that asked the state Supreme Court to invalidate it. In November 2018, Proposal 2 passed with more than 60 percent approval. For Fahey, like Meade, victory validated her core belief that “people could come together and make change happen.”

And 2018 saw four other states greenlight ballot initiatives mandating nonpartisan redistricting commissions: Utah, Missouri, Ohio and Colorado.

In Idaho, which is redder than red, a citizen campaign, Reclaim Idaho, backed a ballot initiative to require the state to accept federal dollars to extend Medicaid to the 62,000 residents lacking health insurance. The initiative passed with some 60 percent of Idahoans voting in the affirmative. Two other states, Nebraska and Utah, also approved similar Medicaid expansion initiatives in 2018.

So, three-quarters of the way through “Unrigged,” all seems right with America and our democracy: Gerrymandering is on the run; Florida’s Amendment 4 enfranchised the largest number of Americans since 1971, when 18-year-olds were allowed to vote; and more poor people were gaining access to health-care coverage. Yes, America’s citizens were battling back and saving our democracy!

Alas, Daley’s story does not end there — and his book starts to feel more like Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Today, more than a few states are experiencing an anti-democratic rollback of these 2018 initiatives, mostly because of recalcitrant Republican legislatures and governors.

In Idaho, the Republican-controlled legislature added a work requirement before residents could receive the new Medicaid coverage that citizens overwhelmingly approved. And to make sure it doesn’t happen again, Idaho and five other states (Florida, Arkansas, South Dakota, North Dakota and Utah) enacted legislation making future citizen-led initiatives like Reclaim Idaho harder to place on November ballots. Meanwhile, in Michigan, Republicans filed a federal lawsuit to invalidate Proposal 2’s nonpartisan redistricting commission.

More ominously, Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, and the Republican legislature approved a 2019 bill more or less gutting Amendment 4. The bill stipulates that before felons can register to vote, they must pay all their court fees and fines. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, these fees and fines can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. In short, it’s a de facto poll tax creating a cash-register democracy. This attack on Amendment 4 is being challenged in federal court.

While these citizen-led initiatives were reaffirming, Daley is far from optimistic about where America is headed in 2020. He writes: “People power alone will not safeguard voting rights. The aggressive national measures that once protected the notion of one person, one vote have disappeared. We should be ready for more gerrymandering, more voter purges, more disenfranchisement.”

Yet, Daley closes “Unrigged” with a pale glimmer of hope — using words worthy of Luke Skywalker: “We do not need superheroes or the perfect presidential candidate to save us. We can, we must, find the courage to step forward and be the solution ourselves.”

Translation: “May the Force be with you.”


How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy

By David Daley

286 pp. $26.95