Gerrymandering isn’t the first thing that comes to mind as an ideal father-daughter bonding opportunity, but there is nothing Robert and Rachel Millman would rather do together than dig deep into the process – and make a documentary about it.
Since September, the duo has been chronicling the progress of a state lawsuit aimed at blowing up Pennsylvania’s partisan political districting for their film, “Line in the Street.” Critics say that letting politicians draw electoral districts – as the commonwealth does – invariably results in voters being grouped in illogical ways principally meant to advantage incumbents.
“I believe in the concept of democracy and gerrymandering is strangling it,” Robert Millman explained. “Pennsylvania has a reputation for being...if not the top, then one of the top three most badly gerrymandered states.”
One need only Google “gerrymandering” to find PA’s serpentine 7th Congressional District cited as one of the worst offenders – it’s sometimes called “Goofy Kicking Donald” because of the district’s geographically tortured resemblance to Disney characters. But their current project stems from a brief article in the New York Times about the Pennsylvania lawsuit that caught Robert Millman’s eye.
There have been numerous attempts to litigate gerrymandering in federal court, including a case on the US Supreme Court docket for the current term, but many voter protections are enshrined at the state level.
“I said to myself, ‘Someone is finally going after it in the right venue.’ All the other cases – and there’s a lot of cases – were based on federal law,” he said. “State constitutions are pretty simple. You have a right to vote and a right to equal protection. So how can it be OK that politicians draw their own lines and protect their own incumbency?”
Formerly a video producer for the New York State Bar Association, Robert Millman said he became engrossed in the minutiae underpinning the US electoral process through his trade. His previous credits include a short film that was critical of attempts to fully digitize New York state’s voting machines. Rachel, a writer living in New York City, said she was drawn to help her father with the project largely because of the indefensible nature of political districting systems in Pennsylvania and other states.
“I would like for these guys to sincerely sit down and convince me this is the wrong thing to be fighting for. I can’t see there being an argument there,” she said. “Regardless of whether you're a Tea Partier or a hardcore Democratic Socialist, the way you want to get your voice heard is to vote. If politicians are drawing districts to make sure your vote doesn't count, you won’t be heard.”
While ordinary people may look at politicized districts with disdain, gerrymandering is, unsurprisingly, still quite popular among Harrisburg legislators. Republican leadership in the state Senate has moved to delay the state lawsuit until the case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court has been resolved.
“They’re foot-dragging because that’s the only way to defend the indefensible,” Robert Millman says.
In the meantime, the Millmans are raising funds to continue making “Line in the Street” and shooting events held by reform advocates like Fair Districts PA. Both are open about the fact their film is explicitly being made as an advocacy project, one that would ideally become a blueprint for other states looking to dismantle inequitable districting systems.
Rachel Millman says she’s also interested in interviewing defenders of gerrymandering – which, to be fair to Senate Republicans, knows no party affiliation. She described hearing a story from reform advocates about Democrats openly shilling for the current districting system, even though it currently provides a disproportionate advantage to rural Republicans in the state.
“Democratic strategists say things like ‘we get to draw the districts next’ and ‘the people don’t know what they want,’” she said. “If that’s how you feel, then you shouldn’t be in politics.”
Also in her sights: Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the polarizing GOP chair of the House State Government committee, who advocates say has notably refused to hold hearings on bills to reform the state’s redistricting process.
“I would love to interview Metcalfe. I would love to get him onscreen. Or maybe that guy who advocated running over protesters with his car...There’s only so far they can go in their arguments.”
An older version of this article incorrectly stated that Robert Millman was a retired lawyer. It has been corrected to reflect the fact that Millman is in fact a retired New York State Bar Association employee.