Atlanta native and “The Office” vet Ed Helms this week released a public service announcement video where he mocks gerrymandering, a common practice in states where legislatures once a decade redraw congressional lines to help maintain power.
Helms is on the board of RepresentUs, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that seeks to overhaul lobbying, transparency, and campaign finance laws. It is pushing heavily for states to use bipartisan independent commissions to draw new congressional lines.
The group also supports a voting protection bill called For the Peoples Act that recently passed the House with only Democrat support and is currently in the Senate that would require states to establish such commissions. (Opponents are not necessarily as against this aspect of the bill but have issues with other provisions such as more early voting, fewer ID requirements, same-day registration and automatic registration for federal elections for eligible voters.)
The video starts with an acoustic guitar strumming in the background and Helms sitting in front of a green screen of a field. He earnestly starts reading the script: “You know who works hard every day?” he says. “Gerrymanderers. They’re the highly paid political consultants who redraw America’s voting districts guaranteeing one party’s domination of an entire state.” Then he stops: “Wait.”
“What is confusing Ed?” says the director.
“Do we want to use a word like domination? That sounds bad!”
“It’s good copy, and we’re still rolling...”
So Helms proceeds: “Using voting data to silence millions of their political opponents, these heroic...”
He stops again. “This sounds super illegal!”
Director: “Gerrymandering is not illegal.”
Helms goes again: “These honest, noble folks want their party to win regardless of what voters want.”
Then he takes a break and tells the director with faux sincerity: “The only reason why I’m here is I thought gerrymanderers were adorable, endangered lizards.”
He reads more script way too quickly, annoying the director. Then he reads it too slowly with his middle finger raised.
“If you want a dumb-dumb to read this like a robot, you could get Rainn Wilson,” Helms says in exasperation, referencing his “The Office” office mate of yore. “He’ll even wash your car.”
Then he is seen talking to Wilson on the phone, saying that gerrymandering is like “some dark Orwellian [expletive.]”
Helms then yells at the director: “When you’re not looking, I’m going to run over you with my Tesla, and you will never hear it coming!”
The ad then asks folks to support the For The Peoples Act. The kicker: Wilson shows up as Helms’ sub and says, “Let’s go save some gerrymanderers people!”
RepresentUs president Josh Graham Lynn said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Helms is appealing because “he’s clearly lovable. In all these movies and on ‘The Office,’ he’s this goofball. In reality, he’s this highly politically educated guy.” Helms showed up at a presentation the group held and soon joined the board. Helms isn’t just a famous name. He’s super active, Lynn said.
Helms graduated Westminster Schools in 1992 and stars in a new small-town ensemble comedy on Peacock coming out Friday “Rutherford Falls.”
Lynn said with redistricting starting soon, “you have to imagine the road is being paved for gerrymandering in the most severe way we’ve ever seen. It’s become more sophisticated. It’s a very successful voter suppression tactic. One party can take control and make voters irrelevant” by placing them in non-competitive districts.
The organization has also done an extensive study on gerrymandering and places Georgia at an “extreme” threat level. It’s a state where there is very little transparency on the redistricting process and very few means for the average person to intervene, Lynn said.
Republicans will have control of redistricting in 18 states, including key ones like Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Texas, all of which will likely gain House seats after the 2020 census is released. The GOP could make gains in 2022 through new more GOP-friendly gerrymandered districts. Democrats will also be able to redraw districts in their favor in states like New York, Illinois and Maryland, but New York and Illinois are likely to lose House seats.
After the 2010 census, Democrats fought gerrymandering in courts in many states and some districts were invalidated in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, but many stayed in place.
Polls show bipartisan support to eliminate gerrymandering. Several states have independent commissions already that draw districts in a fair way, including California, Arizona, Michigan and Colorado. Virginia voters in 2020 approved a nonpartisan redistricting commission.
The PSA, Lynn said, “is a great way to get people who aren’t paying attention to stop and look and ask the questions: ‘What is this? How is it important to me?’”
To Lynn, gerrymandering is a bi-partisan problem that fundamentally weakens democracy. He said more people need to contact their Congressional representatives to get them to pass the For the People bill so this doesn’t have to be fought at a state-by-state level.
“We as a nation cannot continue to do what we’ve been doing,” Lynn said, “regardless of party. This is not working.”
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