A Father, a Daughter, and the Attempt to Change the Census
At around half past nine on the last day of September, Stephanie Hofeller was parked at a Speedway in Kentucky, where she lives, when she got a strange sense that she should Google her father, whom she hadn’t seen in more than four years. One of the first results that popped up was an obituary in the Times, which had been published six weeks before. “Holy shit,” Hofeller said to a friend who was in the car with her. “My father’s dead.” She did some more Googling, to make sure it wasn’t a hoax—given her father’s notoriety, she figured it might be. “I remember feeling a lot of things,” Hofeller told me recently. “It’s hard to decide how you feel when you find out a parent you had that kind of deeply fraught history with is dead.” She added, “I’d spent so long considering him a dangerous enemy to me and the country.”
Thomas Hofeller, who died in August, at the age of seventy-five, was raised in San Diego and served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. In the early eighties, after completing a doctorate in political science at Claremont Graduate University, he became the R.N.C.’s data-operations manager. In that position, he began to grasp how the redrawing of political maps could usher in a sweeping tide of Republican power in state legislatures. Congressional redistricting became his specialty; the Times obituary referred to him as “the Michelangelo of the modern gerrymander.” The former congressman Lynn Westmoreland worked closely with Hofeller on Republican redistricting efforts in Georgia between 2000 and 2010. “Redistricting is the science of politics,” Westmoreland told me. “It’s also a blood sport for adults, because it controls ten years and it controls peoples’ lives. It’s the purest form of brass-knuckle politics that there is. And, of the people I worked with over many years, Mr. Hofeller was the go-to guy, the best.” He added, “When you do this for forty years, as Tom did, you’re not just doing it for the moment. You’re trying to prepare for legal challenges, to anticipate what changes could be made, population growth and decline, the winds of the political environment in states and districts. Tom, he understood it all.”
Hofeller preferred to keep the details of his work private and to avoid paper trails. “E-mails are the tool of the devil,” he explained to fellow-operatives. Still, he did leave some documentation behind. About a week and a half after Stephanie learned of her father’s death, she made a trip to her parents’ retirement home, in Raleigh, North Carolina, where her mother, Kathleen, still lives, looking for keepsakes. She later described the visit in a deposition for a lawsuit concerning legislative redistricting in North Carolina. In her father’s bedroom, she found a jewelry box, which had been hers as a child. She also found four external hard drives and eighteen thumb drives that had belonged to her father. One of the drives was labelled “NC Data.” Hofeller took the drives to the hotel where she was staying and began to scan the contents of the devices, which contained some seventy-five thousand files. She found early photographs of her two children—buried treasure, she called them in the deposition—and a music recording that she’d made, as well as letters she’d written. She also found a number of files related to her father’s work.
A couple of weeks after Hofeller’s visit to her parents’ home, Chris Morden, a lawyer in Raleigh who had done estate planning for Thomas and Kathleen Hofeller in 2016, filed a petition to have Kathleen Hofeller deemed legally incompetent. The petition cited Kathleen’s recent victimization in a “gift card payment scheme,” and an alleged attempted transfer of money to India, a country to which Kathleen has no apparent connection. The petition also reported that Kathleen “is believed to be under influence of previously estranged child.” In response to the petition, an interim guardian was appointed.
“There was my mother, with all of her accounts frozen, scared to death, as only a competent person can be in that situation,” Stephanie wrote to me in an e-mail. “How could I proceed? I was not my father’s colleague, not his co-worker, or vetted friend, not even his son, only his daughter and an ordinary citizen—free from the naïveté that Tom Hofeller had ever been an honest man.” In the deposition, Stephanie said that she was worried that many lawyers in Raleigh would be more concerned about her father’s political work than about her mother’s well-being. And so she called the Raleigh office of Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group focussed on government accountability, to ask for a referral. The group was the plaintiff in a gerrymandering lawsuit challenging legislative maps for North Carolina that had been drawn by her father.
It was just a few days before the midterm elections, and the Common Cause office was particularly busy. When Stephanie told the group’s executive director in the state, Bob Phillips, on the phone, that she was Thomas Hofeller’s daughter, he assumed she was going to yell at him and blast the organization’s efforts. “Then, of course, the conversation quickly became something different,” Philips told me. “It wasn’t about our case. It was about her need to get an attorney for a hearing a few days later, for her mother, regarding her father’s estate and a potential guardian that was going to be appointed. She felt like everyone was against her in Raleigh. The people around, connected with her dad, were all against her. She had no one she could really trust.”
Phillips referred her to Jane Pinsky, the person who, as Hofeller recalled, “probably knew more Raleigh lawyers than anyone else on his staff.” Pinsky agreed to help, and she and Hofeller spoke multiple times on the phone. In the course of those conversations, Hofeller expressed her frustration with what her mother was going through and what she saw as the political motivations of those involved. She mentioned a recent column in the Raleigh News & Observer, in which the journalist David Daley, who has written extensively about gerrymandering, was quoted as saying, “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if on a hard drive somewhere in Raleigh Tom Hofeller has another set of gifts for legislators.” In fact, Hofeller told Pinsky, she had multiple hard drives that had belonged to her father. She didn’t know, she says, that the drives could be used in Common Cause’s litigation—the case she knew about, Rucho v. Common Cause, was already on its way to the Supreme Court. But the group, it turned out, had just filed another gerrymandering lawsuit.
On February 7th, a settlement was reached regarding Morden’s petition of incompetency. The interim guardian was dismissed; Kathleen Hofeller agreed to put most of her assets into an irrevocable trust overseen by a neutral trustee. She was not deemed incompetent. (Morden declined to comment for this story; his law partner, Nickolas Sherrill, listed as the attorney on Morden’s petition, did not respond to requests for comment.) Six days later, the plaintiff’s attorneys in Common Cause’s new case, Common Cause v. Lewis, subpoenaed Thomas Hofeller’s old hard drives.
Attorneys for the defendants in the case have argued that Stephanie Hofeller obtained the drives improperly; the plaintiffs have countered that not only did she acquire them legally, with full permission from their owner, but that, even if she hadn’t, the plaintiffs would still have the right to subpoena them as evidence. The law appears to be on their side.
In the meantime, the hard drives have upended another case entirely, one that is not about gerrymandering but the census. A year and a half ago, ProPublica reported that the Department of Justice had sent a letter to the Census Bureau requesting that the 2020 census include a question asking people whether they were U.S. citizens. The letter argued that adding such a question would help the department enforce the Voting Rights Act, by obtaining “citizen voting-age population data” in places where the voting power of minorities might be improperly diluted by redistricting. Legal observers were immediately suspicious of this stated reasoning: adding a citizenship question would likely cause fewer immigrants to respond to the census, and, while additional citizenship data might be useful, “no one in the communities who are most affected” by the Voting Rights Act has expressed concern about a lack of such data, as Michael Li, an election-law specialist at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, pointed out at the time. Eventually, seventeen states, seven cities, and multiple nonprofit groups filed a lawsuit fighting the addition of a citizenship question to the census, and the case made its way to the Supreme Court.
In May, with the Supreme Court’s decision pending, attorneys at Common Cause were going through Hofeller’s files when they found evidence that seemed to confirm what many had suspected: that adding a citizenship question to the census was a way to drive down immigrant participation—thus weakening their representation when subsequent congressional districts were drawn—and had nothing to do with enforcing the Voting Rights Act. Some of the language and reasoning in the Justice Department’s letter appeared to come directly from Hofeller, who, they discovered, had conducted a study, in 2015, on the effects of drawing congressional districts not according to a state’s total population but according to the number of voting-age citizens. Doing so, he concluded, “would be advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” And it would be impossible to do so, he wrote, without adding a citizenship question to the census. Common Cause also found e-mail exchanges on the hard drives between Hofeller and Christa Jones, a longtime census employee who is now chief of staff to the deputy director of the U.S. Census Bureau. Jones e-mailed Hofeller about the census in 2010, and again in 2015, when she pointed out that the bureau was soliciting public comments, and noted, “This can also be an opportunity to mention citizenship as well.”
“You can’t put this cat back in the bag,” Stephanie Hofeller told me in June. “I was expecting those hard drives to be inflammatory, but I had no idea that it was that immediate and that huge—that it would be that obvious and just explode. I thought the fuse was just a little bit longer. But I didn’t have the team of specialists to go through all this stuff.”
Hofeller and I first spoke shortly before the Supreme Court ruled on the census case. The first news stories about the hard drives, and their possible ramifications, had mentioned that Hofeller was estranged from her father, but those reports had not explained what led to that estrangement or said very much about the person whose visit to her parents’ home had conceivably altered American political history. In the deposition, a lawyer for the defendants said, of Stephanie Hofeller, “Even a cursory review of publicly available information shows that the respondent’s relationship with her father was strained.” Hofeller remarked to me in an e-mail, “Right, nothing better than a cursory review of publicly available information to unravel the complicated dynamics of familial relationships!”
Hofeller often speaks in metaphors, tangents, and allusions, and she described her relationship with the hard drives, fittingly, in terms of a parent’s relationship to a child. “I knew the fundamental philosophical act that I was performing in liberating those hard drives, even if I didn’t know exactly what was on them,” she said. “It’s like chasing after a toddler: I want you to be free, but I’m still technically responsible for you.”
Stephanie Hofeller, who was born in 1969 and grew up near Washington, D.C., has worked as a farmer, a waitress, an exotic dancer, an Off Broadway actress, and in I.T. support. She is also a writer: she has published poetry and essays and political commentary in “obscure zines and progressive blogs,” as she put it. As a kid, Hofeller told me, she rarely got in any trouble or argued with her parents. “In the Reagan years, I’d ask my dad to characterize comments made by the ‘liberal press,’ ” she said. “I didn’t have experience enough to debate him, which I would later on, calling out all of his and their bullshit.” Both her parents had Ph.D.s; her mother was a successful psychologist. Hofeller spent one semester studying musical composition at Catholic University before dropping out. She briefly had a job with Congressional Quarterly, working on a dial-up service it had in the late eighties called Washington Alert.
The Times has described Stephanie as “a political progressive who despises Republican partisanship, but also has scant respect for Democrats.” Hofeller told me in an e-mail that her politics are in opposition to “the state, a patriarchy at its finest, working hand in hand with the oligarchs of organized religion, that discourage women from discovering their own natural power.” In another e-mail, she wrote, “Even a ‘cursory glance at publicly available information’ suggests that I have a history of resistance to authority and a tendency to open my mouth when expedience would call for my silence. This, combined with my traveler’s soul, results in a storied history, resumé and rap-sheet as well as a total absence of advanced degrees.”
By the end of her twenties, she was back in D.C., where, in 2000, she met a man named Peter Lizon at “a goth-techno-industrial-themed night club.” They were both “only children and black sheep,” she told me. They were married in 2002. In a recent essay, she describes the beginning of their relationship, in the early years of the George W. Bush Administration. “Together we were artists and activists, and met the coming of the new American Fascism with consistent indignation and resistance. In 2004, just before the election, we were arrested during a direct-action political protest.” They used a bayonet knife to deface Bush-Cheney campaign signs. “It became more and more obvious that homesteading in a remote locale would be the best option for us,” she writes. They moved to West Virginia in 2005, and began subsistence farming in Jackson County, in the northwestern part of the state. In 2009, Hofeller had a pregnancy that ended in a stillbirth. She and Lizon had their first child a couple of years later.
It was around this time that Shawn Bayliss, an attorney in the area, came to know them. “They were the most interesting people I’ve probably ever dealt with in a twenty-five-year legal career,” he told me. “They were living an alternative life style, and I think they came here basically for the isolation. It’s a rural and religious county.” He went on, “As self-described anarchists, joined at the hip, they stuck out like a sore thumb. Speaking with them, you realize fairly quickly that these people are very bright, and they’re usually two or three steps ahead of everyone around them.”
In 2012, Bayliss, who is a criminal-and-family lawyer, represented Lizon on charges of kidnapping, malicious wounding, and domestic battery. The case garnered national headlines. “Peter Lizon, West Virginia man, kept his wife and tortured her for nearly a decade, sheriff says,” one of those headlines, on the Web site of CBS News, declared. Prosecutors claimed that Hofeller had given birth while in chains, in the couple’s basement, and that Lizon had buried a stillborn child in their back yard. “There was no bizarre basement torture,” Bayliss told me. “It was a simple domestic-violence matter.” Stephanie Hofeller told me that the most salacious aspects of the story, as they were reported in the press, were “beyond absurd.” She attributed them to someone she met at a women’s shelter, where she had gone to get away from Lizon, shortly before the charges were filed. All charges against Lizon were dismissed without prejudice, prior to trial, in August, 2013.
“Stephanie didn’t want to coöperate with the domestic-battery charges, so they didn’t go further than the grand jury,” Dawn Moore, a professor in the department of law and legal studies at Carleton University, in Ottawa, told me. “But I know the abuse was bad, because I’ve seen the photographs of the scars on her body. There was a lot of violence, but not what was described in the papers.” (My attempts to reach Lizon for comment were unsuccessful. Mike Hissam, a lawyer who has represented Lizon, told me, “He fell off the face of the earth. He’s probably in Europe somewhere. I told him to get the hell out of Dodge after everything went down.”)
Moore came across Hofeller’s case three years ago while working on a study about evidence collection in domestic-violence cases. “I brought her to Canada in 2017,” Moore told me. “She was still trying to keep a low profile and hiding from her ex, so she wasn’t comfortable telling her story in the U.S.” She and Moore spent the better part of a year “mapping out her story,” as Moore put it. “Not her relationship with Peter so much as what happened in the aftermath—in the grand jury and in the family-court cases—reconstructing the files for her.”
Together, Moore and Hofeller wrote an essay titled “45 Colour Photographs: Images, Emotions and the Victim of Domestic Violence,” which appears in “Emotions and Crime: Towards a Criminology of Emotions,” a book that was published by Routledge in June. The essay, in Moore’s words, aims to “foreground the voice of someone who could so easily have remained another two-dimensional object in our research.” Specifically, it interrogates the use of photographs in the case against Hofeller’s ex-husband, which would ultimately lead to her own criminalization and the loss of her children in family court.
“When Stephanie first told me her story, I thought she was full of shit,” Moore told me. “It seemed so far-fetched and unbelievable. But, as we started to do background research, I realized that she was, in fact, a hundred per cent accurate.” Moore has examined affidavits, search warrants, and arrest warrants. At the women’s shelter, Hofeller had photographs taken of the bruises and marks on her body. The shelter, Moore said, then released the photographs to Hofeller’s father, and they ended up “in the hands of the sheriff’s office.” Hofeller and Moore maintain that Thomas Hofeller suggested to his daughter that, if she “did not coöperate with the investigation into Peter,” as Moore put it, “he would use the photographs to incriminate her on the grounds of child neglect and then use the photos to challenge Stephanie’s custodial rights in family court. Stephanie did not comply, and everything that Tom threatened came true, except for Peter was never convicted.”
After the charges against Lizon were dropped, “it turned into a child-abuse-and-neglect matter,” Shawn Bayliss told me. Hofeller denies ever neglecting or endangering her children; she says that, faced with the prospect of losing their children to the foster system, she and Lizon requested that they be placed with her parents. Moore insisted to me that Thomas Hofeller “was largely responsible for the termination of her parental rights.”
Of course, it seems understandable that a father might want his daughter to leave an abusive husband and could be concerned for the welfare of his grandchildren. But, according to Stephanie Hofeller, Moore, and two other people I spoke to who are familiar with the details of the case, Thomas Hofeller, after receiving custody of his daughter’s children, placed them in foster care. Stephanie told me that the kids are now almost certainly with adoptive parents and that the adoption would be “nonreversible.” She hasn’t seen her children, she said, in more than five years. At the time, the older of the two was not quite three years old. Her younger child was twenty-one months old. (As is often done with cases involving minors, their custody records have been sealed.)
Moore has been working with the legal clinic at West Virginia Law School to rebuild Hofeller’s court files, as part of her ongoing academic inquiry into the way that evidence taken from victims’ bodies is used “to replace or antagonise reluctant / non-co-operative victims through investigation and trial,” as she put it in an e-mail. (“The entire project was inspired by Stephanie’s case, which remains the most extreme example of what I am studying,” she explained, but, she added, “elements of what happened to Stephanie are reflected in almost all” of the more than seventy other cases she has studied.) “I’ve got the criminal case, and we’re starting to work on the family case,” she said. “Everything we’ve learned so far corroborates exactly with what Stephanie has said.” She added, “Because of the way Stephanie meanders through a story, it’d be easy to discount her. But that’s a grave error. Hers is an incredibly important story of what an utter failure the criminal-justice system is—not just in the United States but more generally. It’s about how we respond to domestic violence in perverse ways. It’s about how dangerous it is for the women whose cases come to the attention of authorities.”
Hofeller says that her father rejected her children “on a lot of levels. But if I had to simplify, it was because of their mixed Slovak and American ethnicity.” (Lizon’s parents were born in Slovakia; the Hofellers, Stephanie said, identified ethnically as American.) “Some of the things he said were pretty shocking,” she went on. She added, “He was a classist more than a bigot. And a stubborn one. He was not able to admit he was ever wrong. I don’t remember a single instance. My mother says that, in fifty-two years, she never won an argument.”
Kathleen Hofeller, who declined to comment for this story through her lawyer, has written two books about domestic violence. In the late seventies, she created a helpline for victims of domestic abuse, an organization that later became a women’s shelter. In “Battered Women, Shattered Lives,” which was published when Stephanie was a child, Kathleen Hofeller writes, “Most battered women, I think, are not really eager to have their husbands put in jail. What they would like is to have their spouses stop being violent so that a good relationship can be developed. Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that many cases never reach trial.” Stephanie said, of her mother, “What really distinguished her reaction from my father’s was that she really wanted to support me and empower me. If I said, ‘I need enough money to spend the night in a hotel,’ she’d want to get me that money. My father would say, ‘Hold on, who’s in charge?’ ” She went on, “He probably went to his grave insisting the only reason he was angry at my ex-husband was for hurting me. But that’s bullshit. What he was most angry at my ex-husband for was losing control of me. Domestic violence is all about control.”
“The one thing my ex-husband and my father had in common was an obsession with putting me in submission, having control over me,” Hofeller said. “A lot of times they’d work together to flush me out and then fight with each other over who’d eat me for lunch.” Hofeller described her ex-husband as “a radical genius: very, very good and very, very horrible.” Still, she said, “Even in his brutality, my ex-husband showed more respect for my existence, my humanity, than my father.”
The custody battle, and what followed, is what caused the final rift between Stephanie and her father. “He reapportioned our family,” she told me. “He didn’t want to live in a majority-minority district.” She added, “This irreverence is how I get through life.”
Hofeller says that she spoke with her father on more than one occasion about the idea of using the census to help shift political power. She would point out that making census forms “more invasive” would likely lead to fewer “disenfranchised people” answering them, and her father, she recalls, would say, “Well, if you’re not gonna get counted, you’re not gonna get represented.” She also maintains that, before she became estranged from him, her father talked with her about redistricting in North Carolina, and about something that he “found difficult to manage in his clients,” which “he would avoid explicitly defining.” In the case of the North Carolina legislators, she said, “It was a twofold problem. One, this tendency to wear racism out and proud, which would shine the light on what he was trying to obfuscate. And, two, the tendency to get greedy.”
Tim Storey, a redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, knew Thomas Hofeller as a “collegial friend” for three decades. I asked him about the allegations that Hofeller’s redistricting work was motivated by bigotry. “Tom was not an evil guy,” Storey insisted. “He was just playing on one team, wearing one jersey. Playing within the rules, as they were set out, to maximize the Republican advantage. I didn’t see him as a racist. He never made any comments to that effect.” He added, “If African-Americans were going to vote mostly for Democrats, well, he was drawing plans to advantage Republicans. But was he racially motivated? I don’t know. He wasn’t Darth Vader.”
In late June, the Supreme Court ruled, in Rucho v. Common Cause, that the federal judiciary did not have the authority to stop legislators from drawing district maps in order to maximize partisan advantage. It was a 5–4 decision, split along ideological lines, with the conservative Justices all in support. Later that day, the Court issued its ruling on the census case. It was another 5–4 decision, but, this time, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion for both of the cases, sided with the liberal wing of the court, concluding that the Commerce Department’s stated reason for adding a citizenship question—that it would help the department enforce the Voting Rights Act—“seems to have been contrived.” The evidence, Roberts wrote, “tells a story that does not match the explanation the Secretary gave for his decision.” For this reason, Roberts sent the case back to a lower court, which had granted the Commerce Department the opportunity to provide a new rationale for adding the question.
“I must say, it’s refreshing to hear a judge confirm the truth that judicial review ought to be more than just ‘an empty ritual,’ ” Stephanie Hofeller told me, after reading Roberts’s opinion. It appears likely that Roberts’s deciding vote was influenced by the evidence that Hofeller brought to light. “Chief Justice Roberts is somebody who is very concerned with the institutional reputation of the Court, and the Hofeller documents—which the Court was clearly aware of—cast so much doubt about the government’s stated reasons for wanting a citizenship question,” Michael Li, the election-law specialist, told me. “It just smelled and felt like something was wrong.”
Days after the ruling, the Commerce Department issued a statement that census forms would be printed without a citizenship question. Hours later, President Trump tweeted that reports mentioning this fact were “incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE! We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.” On Sunday, the Times reported that the Justice Department would replace its entire team of lawyers on the case. On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that this was not permissible, calling the department’s stated reasoning for the wholesale switch “patently deficient.” Finally, on Thursday afternoon, in a press conference at the Rose Garden, Trump said that his Administration would no longer seek to add a citizenship question, and that he was issuing an executive order that called on the Commerce Department to comb through “all legally accessible records” related to citizenship. (The order appears to demand something that was already taking place.) Trump also said, when speaking of the need for citizenship data, “Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts, based upon the voter eligible population.” The comment reinforced the impression that adding the citizenship question was always an effort to strengthen the Republican Party’s advantage in future redistricting by amplifying the representation of, as Thomas Hofeller put it, non-Hispanic Whites.
A few hours later, the Justice Department sent a letter to the district-court judges in Maryland and New York who have adjudicated the census case, informing them that they planned to “discuss appropriate next steps in these proceedings.” A lawyer for the New York Immigration Coalition, one of the groups that sued the Commerce Department over the matter, said that the group will file a motion seeking sanctions against the government for their false testimony in the case, citing the evidence on Hofeller’s hard drives. Common Cause v. Lewis, the North Carolina gerrymandering case for which the drives were originally subpoenaed, is set to go to trial next week. (Though the Supreme Court ruled, in Rucho v. Common Cause, that federal courts should not be involved in disputes about partisan gerrymandering, it left the matter open for state courts.)
It will soon be a year since Thomas Hofeller died. Stephanie told me that she’s still haunted by the memory of her father. “He was one of my most powerful enemies,” she said. “When he was gone, the fear was gone. Then the sadness set in.” She dreams about him often, she told me. “I have nightmares, mostly. He’s never paying attention. There’s something I have to tell him, and he’s always doing something different.” As for the attention being paid to the material in her father’s old hard drives, she said, “I’m really glad that people are talking to each other, and contemplating the revelation of yet another juicy detail of the abuse of power. While the courts contemplate our fate, we can step back and think about ways that we could grant ourselves liberty, without the permission of our captors.”
On the day her father died, in August, Stephanie was on vacation in Detroit, having just finished a draft of “45 Colour Photographs.” She was sitting with a friend, having coffee, “finally feeling satisfied,” she said. In the essay, Hofeller writes, “As I view the shelter photographs now, I do feel a certain pride in exposure. When it’s you that shares something private and personal, there is a different affect to that exposure. For example, as a stripper, once I got over the awkwardness of being naked onstage, I felt a certain pride, at taking ownership of my own body, my own sexuality, and using it to empower myself. And now, if I can, by taking the risk of exposing myself again, draw attention to the crimes of those in power, well that seems to me the best kind of exposure there is.”