The Frenzy Over ProPublica's Redistricting Report

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Did Democrats unduly influence the drawing of California's new 9th congressional district? (Photo: CRC Map)

It should come as little surprise that California's political class is all abuzz over a new and lengthy report on the state's first ever independent redistricting process, one that describes in great detail private machinations apparently employed to help influence the final placement of district lines.

But the reaction has been so predictably partisan -- Republicans calling for a formal investigation, Democrats attacking the report as overblown hype -- that it's hard to discern the substantive jabs from the superficial spin.

The report from the investigative nonprofit ProPublica doesn't mince words: it alleges that California Democrats "fooled" the 14 members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission into drawing lines that -- unbeknownst to the citizen commissioners -- were just as Democrats would've drawn themselves if they had the chance:

The losers in this once-a-decade reshaping of the electoral map, experts say, were the state's voters. The intent of the citizens' commission was to directly link a lawmaker's political fate to the will of his or her constituents. But as ProPublica's review makes clear, Democratic incumbents are once again insulated from the will of the electorate.

That allegation hinges on ProPublica's access to numerous private emails of Democrats in Washington, D.C. that reference efforts to essentially 'game' the commission's system for public comment and testimony. The team of reporters further uncovered links between political operatives and what were supposedly 'grassroots' community groups lobbying for particular congressional districts -- an effort ProPublica's reporting team says was coordinated with incumbent Dems in the state's congressional delegation.

"The value of coordinating efforts to influence the commission cannot be overstated," says the ProPublica report. "If each Democrat battled separately for the best district, it was likely that one Congress member's gain would harm countless colleagues."

The reaction to the story was swift and predictable.

"The ProPublica report vindicates my repeated contention that the redistricting process was hijacked," said California Republican Party chairman Tom Del Beccaro in an emailed statement. The political campaign seeking to overturn the state Senate districts either by legal challenge or ballot referendum said the story proved that the commission process was "corrupted" by Democrats. Meantime, Democrats attacked the story as much ado about nothing.

"The article," said a statement from California Democratic Party John Burton, "is pure fantasy."

Having watched not only the commission's work from its inception but also the many years of debate over redistricting reform before that, I offer a few observations about the story.

Party Registration Data and A "Blind" Commission: A key assertion made by the ProPublica team was that the citizen commissioners erred by refusing to look at the partisan registration in the districts they created. (And keep in mind, they drew four different maps: state Senate, Assembly, Congress, and state Board of Equalization.)

While it's true that neither 2008's Proposition 11 nor 2010's Proposition 20 banned the commission from using party registration data, this is one of those issues on which commissioners were likely to be criticized either way. Had they chosen to debate the merits of creating, say, a Democratic or Republican district, both partisans and 'good government' groups would have likely pilloried them for violating, if not the letter of the law, the spirit of "independent" redistricting. ProPublica asserts that knowing the partisan makeup of districts would have helped ferret out the stealth influence peddling. Perhaps. But with 14 commissioners who had all publicly pledged to keep party politics at arm's length, this would have been a highly controversial decision.

That being said, where the commission did seem to fail in its informing the public was by not fully disclosing partisan registration data on its public maps. That's because virtually the whole world wanted to know what the maps did to the two major parties -- who won, who lost, etc. The commission's maps (and in the June 10 draft these were PDFs that failed to allow searches by a voter's address) always gave general and ethnic population data, but never the political bottom line -- thus creating a cottage industry of Republican and Democratic computer whizzes who as a result fielded press calls and, no doubt, attracted new clients.

One final thought on the notion of a commission that "blinded" itself to party politics: these were not sequestered jurors. News reports, blogs, tweets, and more constantly dished on information about the political ramifications of draft iterations. And even more important to remember: maps submitted by outside organizations were clearly politically motivated. Those maps may not have had "D" and "R" info attached to them, but it wasn't hard to discern the political intentions of many... if not most... of the groups that drew maps.

Members of the public line up to plead for community boundaries being respected at a June redistricting hearing (Photo: KQED/John Myers)

Astroturf Groups: ProPublica's most detailed reporting pieces together a trail of emails and actions leading from Democratic VIPs to mysterious websites to, ultimately, testimony offered in commission hearings as representative of "community groups." Only the commissioners themselves can truly answer whether they were conned about the identity or backers of any particular person and/or group. It's worth noting, though, that a few weeks into the 2011 process, commission members confirmed that they were sensing patterns in public hearings of certain people who purported to be average Joes... but clearly were not. That doesn't mean that the commissioners didn't miss some key 'ringers' who showed up to plead an alleged community's case, but it does suggest that at some level the commission was savvy enough to take some of the testimony with a grain of salt.

The Saga of 'Communities of Interest': Since the filing of the initiative that became Prop 20, I've been intrigued by the emphasis on a redistricting effort that was required to honor (to some extent) "communities of interest." The term is more art than science, however. And while Prop 20's author insisted that he was merely trying to help the commission navigate the issue with guidance that dated back to the 1991 maps drawn by court-appointed special masters, it's also true that there are different definitions of a "community of interest" in almost every state that references the term in its redistricting guidelines (PDF). And so it's neither surprising that the commission would spend so much time trying to honor the subjective boundaries of communities (which, as I've reported, are often in the eye of the beholder) nor that political operatives would try to create communities to their own advantage.

Hard Boundaries: Of particular interest is the report's assertion that two northern California congressional district lines -- one encompassing San Joaquin County and eastern Contra Costa County, the other dividing the Bay region at the Golden Gate Bridge -- were directly the result of Democratically controlled public comments. Both of these lines, interestingly, came up in an August story I wrote about the splitting of some communities under the maps. The commission believed then, as it likely does now, that it was responding to legitimate community interests. That may be, but it does seem worth pointing out that those two "hard boundaries," added to firm rules about minority voter districts, were a foundation for much of the map drawing. As ProPublica points out, decisions in one region during a redistricting process tend to ripple through other regions, due to mandates about equal population.

Little Saigon Split: ProPublica's reporting team asserts that this Vietnamese community in Orange County was split into separate congressional districts because of well-placed testimony by the Democrat who stood to gain from that splitting, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove). Again, only the commissioners can speak to why they made certain decisions. But it's worth noting that Little Saigon was not split in maps for Assembly and Senate districts. And time and again in the late spring hearings, commissioners seemed to follow an unwritten policy of keeping as many communities as they could intact at one or two "levels" of representation, i.e. Assembly but not Senate, Congress but not Assembly, etc. It's certainly debatable as to whether that was just compensation; after all, legislative representation in Sacramento is not the same thing as representation on Capitol Hill. Still, it was used in areas up and down the state... thus, the Little Saigon experience is hard to judge on the singular level mentioned in the story.

Working For Free? An incidental, but not quite on the mark, assertion in the ProPublica report was that the 14 commissioners "worked for free, with only a small stipend for expenses." Perhaps some of them saw that stipend as small, but it was $300 for every day of commission business plus expenses. And while commissioners no doubt did a lot of pro bono work, some were quite detailed in the time they billed the state. One even billed time for his review of documents on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of last year (PDF).

Non-Partisan Not Required: Finally, an observation about a mindset that seems to exist not only with ProPublica's national reporting team but others who have watched or participated in the redistricting commission's work. And that is that California voters created a "nonpartisan process" for drawing political districts. However, neither Prop 11 nor Prop 20 ever specifically promised a "nonpartisan" commission -- that is, one made up of members and opinions with no formal political allegiances. Instead, what the two initiatives promised was a commission "independent" from elected officials and the tendency to gerrymander.

And yet time and again through the process, some observers criticized Democrats on the panel for acting like -- well, Democrats -- and Republicans for acting like -- well, Republicans. (The criticisms were much more numerous, it should be noted, against the commission's Dems.) Four other members of the commission were unaffiliated with either party, but often had to make decisions that favored one partisan mindset or the other. If the public truly expected an apolitical redistricting process, then they were set up for disappointment from the very start.

Update 7:20 p.m. Friday 12/23: There's been a surprising amount of conversation about both ProPublica's story and what did, or did not happen, in the commission's map drawing process. This evening, the original reporters posted a reply to some of the questions they've been getting. That reply includes one to my observation in this post about the expectations of non-partisanship.

The authors reprint language from Prop 11's preamble to make their case (and a minor quibble, but this isn't language "voters saw in the ballot box," as it only appeared in the voter guide; the actual ballot only includes the title and summary, which is more general).

Still, assuming that voters read the preamble promising "nonpartisan rules designed to ensure fair representation," there's neither an assertion, nor evidence, in the original story that the "rules" weren't followed by the commission. In fact, a challenge to some of the commission maps... one that alleged a breaking of the rules... was summarily dismissed by the California Supreme Court (a federal court challenge to Los Angeles congressional districts is pending).

Furthermore, the voters were told that "an equal number of Democrats and Republicans," plus independents, would be overseeing these "nonpartisan rules." In other words, a bipartisan commission tasked with implementing nonpartisan rules. There's no dispute that the political campaign in support of Prop 11 blurred some of these distinctions, but the actual work of the commission made clear how much more complicated the process was than the initiative campaign suggested.

Finally, a thought about the assertions that Democrats gained more than the impartial data suggests they should have: those gains shouldn't be measured by the districts drawn in 2001. That's because the 2001 maps, drawn by the Legislature, were gerrymandered to protect incumbents of both major parties -- not just Democrats. Even legislative leaders involved in that closed-door process have admitted their goal was incumbents first, political party second.

The real work for researchers will be to dig into the 1991 maps, drawn by court-appointed masters, and review those along with 1990 Census and voter registration data. Only then will we see whether net gains or decreases in subsets of Californians vis-a-vis 2011 make the commission maps look "fair."

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • gregorylent

    there has to be a different way … #occupypolitics

    think about it

    we are killing ourselves with our current system

    not just gerrymandering, the entire concept of a legislature, and parties, and lobbying, and centralized decision-making

  • RT

    Fraud, manipulation, and dishonesty in California government?  Both parties’ do it, it is just that the Democrats are in charge in California and they want to keep it that way.

  • Steven Maviglio

    Here’s what the ProPublica investigation found: Democrats were smart and were engaged in the process while Republicans (who supported the ballot measure creating the commission) did their usual nothing. So now the GOP is spending what they could have spent to fund four State Senate races on lawsuits and a referendum. It’s actually why Republicans will be a permanent minority in our state.

    Let’s face it: the Commission has NO accountability, nor does the State Auditor who selected the members. Voters didn’t select the commissioners and they can’t remove them. Say what you want about elected officials doing this work, but at least they are accountable to voters.

  • Speech85

    @S@4fdeda2d1b2b00bb14d90357bb9720bc:disqus teven: The Commissioners can’t be removed but their work can be.  There is indeed a due process for that.  And if you think that the Commissioners don’t care about that after spending this much time trying to get it as right as possible (at least in their opinion) you know little about human nature.But then again that’s what all the complaints against the Commission were really about–right from the start.  Should we entrust politics (I mean really entrust politics) to people from the street?  Do they really know what they’re doing?  Will they be hoodwinked (ProPublica), will they be accountable (Maviglio)?  Both questions are really saying that the political class is really better at politics than us regular people.I voted against the redistricting Commission because I thought it cost too much at a time we couldn’t afford it but you know, these kinds of “leave it to the pols dear and don’t bother your pretty little head about it” criticisms from the professionals convinced me at least that I was wrong to do so.

  • dlG

    To believe the ProPublica report you have to believe that the Democratic Party is better at influencing others into doing its work than it is at doing its work. Even with the results of the new district lines in place, Democrats would still rather have the Legislature control the process.

  • Ash Roughani

    Solid analysis, John, and a good juxtaposition against ProPublica’s implicit assumption that the process could actually take the politics out of politics.

    I suppose a greater concern is that we don’t actually know what, if any, strategies were employed on the Republican side.  It’s unfathomable to think that they just sat on the sidelines.

    As you point out, the beauty of the process is that everyone could see what was happening at every step of the way.

  • Ash Roughani

    Following your logic, we’d ditch the concept of citizen juries.  There’s never going to be a perfect system, but any time you can take conflicts of interest out of the equation is a good thing.

  • Chris Stampolis

    I love Steve’s insight about the throwaway money Repubs could have used for organizing. 

    If Dems capitalize on momentum to strengthen local organizing through stronger Democratic clubs and enhanced communication with Democratic City Councilmembers and education Trustees, the state will look even more blue in ten and 20 years.

    Individual Republicans had more to lose with State Legislative lines because a candidate must live in the district one seeks, while U.S. House seats don’t require the member to be a registered voter of their district.  Residency matters less for up-and-coming Dems because neighboring districts also lean Dem.  Republicans have such small bases that small line changes collapse their futures because the neighboring district is likely to be Dem-friendly. 

  • MidtownSquinter

    Thanks, John, for your thorough and useful analysis as you’ve covered the story since the  commission’s inception.  Any piece that gets a less than 24 hour response from the likes of Maviglio is certainly hitting the right marks!

  • Speech85

    I am sorry I wasn’t clear.  Given the kind of criticism the Commisssion (which was made up of regular people who had to be interested in politics–otherwise they never would have applied to begin with!) has sustained from Left and Right,  I decided that I was wrong to have voted against it.  For the simple reason that (IMO) ordinary people tend to make fairly good calls on the whole.  Citizen juries being one example of that.  And the criticism levied against the Commission by Right and Left is that the members were’t professional politicians.  That was sort of the point…..

  • Steve Chessin

    Whether the ProPublica article is accurate or not, I just want to note that if we used proportional representation (PR), such shenanigans would be less effective, as the lines around multi-member districts,with the winners allocated in direct proportion to the vote, don’t matter as much as they do for single-member districts.  While it would take a change in federal law to allow us to use PR for our Congressional delegation, it’s only our own State Constitution that would need to be changed for us to use PR for our legislature.

    Visit to find out more.

  • Anonymous

    The whole ProPublica thing is a huge joke. Even the “ultra-liberal” Redding Record Searchlight says that: “the Republicans’ pose as innocent victims of a terrible deceit doesn’t pass the laugh test.”Here’s the complete editorial:Republicans in California are shocked — shocked! — that politics was going on in this year’s political redistricting.A detailed article released online Wednesday by the investigative-reporting shop ProPublica — “How Democrats Fooled California’s Redistricting Commission” — reported on how Democratic operatives, organized out of Washington, used a variety of sub-rosa angles to try to influence the Citizens Redistricting Commission. That independent board, created by voter initiative, for the first time this year drew new political district boundaries without making incumbents’ interests the top priority.The Democrats’ prime method, according to ProPublica? They offered testimony, nominally in the name of citizens or independent groups, that favored their own congressional representatives, all the while hiding their own party affiliation. In essence, they used front groups to manipulate the commission.This bit of political subterfuge, to hear Republicans tell it, undermines the integrity of the entire redistricting. Tom Del Beccaro, the state party chairman, wrote in a message to party supporters, “The report systematically lays out the corrupt manipulation of what should have been an open and transparent process.”Please. The Republican operatives’ real beef is that they tried to play the same game but failed to pull it off.We’re not privy to insider discussions among congressional Republicans about their redistricting strategy, but we did closely follow the new maps’ unfolding as they affected the north state.And what did we see? We saw Erin Ryan testify to the Citizens Redistricting Commission at Shasta College in April. She talked about how her work with the Girl Scouts, the United Way and private business had taken her all over rural Northern California over the years, and how the rugged geography made it implausible to link the conservative inland north state with the liberal North Coast — an idea floated by those keen for more political competition. She argued instead for a district centered on Interstate 5. Ryan’s geography lesson was persuasive and accurate, but somehow amid her list of bona fides she never got around to mentioning that she worked for Sen. Doug LaMalfa, who was very keen to keep a safe Sacramento Valley district for himself.We saw comment letters to the commission from at least one other aide to LaMalfa and members of the Shasta County Republican Central Committee, again arguing about the importance of Sacramento Valley districts (which would have suited LaMalfa and Assemblyman Jim Nielsen) — and again neglecting to mention their partisan ties.We saw the Shasta County Board of Supervisors corralled into the argument, sending a letter to the redistricting commission that advocated keeping Shasta County in a Senate district with Rocklin (as it has been for the past decade) instead of Roseville (as it will be under new maps). That change would have maintained a convenient status quo for LaMalfa and his fellow state Sen. Ted Gaines, and indeed it turned out LaMalfa’s office had drafted the letter for the supervisors to sign.Are these dirty, underhanded machinations? Or just the rough rules of hardball politics? Take your pick. Either way, though, the Republicans’ pose as innocent victims of a terrible deceit doesn’t pass the laugh test.

  • Flicka47

    Ahhh, no they weren’t “professional politicians”, but they weren’t exactly “ordinary citizens” either.

    Now maybe out of the 20,000+ folks that filled out all the required paperwork to get to the second step, some (maybe even most)weren’t qualified(?) The last hundred (60?) or so were picked because they weren’t “ordinary citizens”, but folks that had “experience” that the folks dong the “selecting” felt made them the most qualified.

    If they had seriously wanted to appoint “ordinary citizens’, then they would have weeded out the truly unqualified(& what would that criteria be? I’m not sure…) and then divide the remainder into the political parties/independents like the Citizens First called for, & then randomly drawn from all the names. Then we would have had “ordinary citizens”, something similar to jury duty…