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Thursday, December 22, 2011

ProPublica gets it wrong on California redistricting

by David Atkins

The organization ProPublica wrote a recent article about supposed Democratic influence in Calfornia's non-partisan redistricting process, alleging that the it was subject to undue influence from Party interests. Their argument essentially goes that because Democrats attempted to lobby the non-partisan Commission, that necessarily the Commission did what the state Democratic Party wanted. The supposed evidence for that claim lies in the fact that the maps, at least for Congress and State Senate, are fairly advantageous to Democrats. Conservative interest groups have been latching onto the ProPublica story to claim the process was rigged.

Predictably, the State Democratic Party is literally calling bullshit:

California Democratic Party chair John Burton, asked moments ago for his comment about the new ProPublica story that contends Democrats here manipulated the state’s redistricting process, was pretty direct: “It’s complete bull…t, an absolute f…ing fabrication.”
Burton said he was never contacted for comment on the story which published by the San Jose Mercury News this afternoon — and only just heard about the allegations it contains.

The story, titled “How Democrats Fooled California’s Redistricting Commission,” alleges party operatives “secretly organized testimony,” and “surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups,” often hiding their affiliations to outwit the members of the independent commission and win favorable lines for the party officials.
But in California, where Democrats enjoy a robust 44-30.9 percent (and widening) advantage in registration over Republicans, a fired up Burton lambasted those suggestions.
“As the chair of the party, I know the party didn’t do this…the Democratic Party didn’t do sh..t,” he said. “As far as I was concerned, there was nothing you could goddamned do.”
Burton said that “if the Democratic Party did that, one would think the (California Republican Party) would challenge all three redistricting” efforts — and not mounting just a challenge to Congressional and State Senate lines. He said that while he wasn’t called for comment, a source from the Rose Institute — which he dimissed as a “Republican Party subsidiary” – was included in the story.
Democratic Party campaign advisor Bob Mulholland, in an email, said it would have been “easier to influence North Korea” than the redistricting commission, which was made up of five Republicans, five Democrats and four decline to state voters chosen through a lengthy vetting and lottery process.

Of course, one might argue, that's what one might expect the Democratic Party to say, right?

Well, Robert Cruickshank has a good take on it at Calitics, part of which I'll quote here:

First, ProPublica seemed to not notice that pretty much everybody in California organized to try and influence the commission. That includes Republicans, Democrats, unions, businesses, progressives, teabaggers, MALDEF, Asian American voting rights activists, white supremacists, and so on. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. That's how democracy works, and the commission was mandated to take public testimony.

Second, ProPublica did not bother to actually to look at California's demographics or voter choices. They claim that the new maps did not reflect the will of the people. One reason they say this is that supposedly population growth benefited Republicans:

"Very little of this is due to demographic shifts," said Professor Doug Johnson at the Rose Institute in Los Angeles. Republican areas actually had higher growth than Democratic ones. "By the numbers, Republicans should have held at least the same number of seats, but they lost."

We'll come back to the Rose Institute in a moment. But this claim itself is absurd on its face. Most of that population growth came from Latinos - who, as anyone familiar with California politics knows, have little love for Republicans. The reason is obvious: the California GOP is a white man's party that despises Latinos. So why on earth should Republicans benefit from Latino population growth?

In fact, the notion floated by the Rose Institute that certain parties have a claim on districts is exactly what the commission was intended to challenge.

Of course, the core assumption that California Republicans deserved any new seats is challenged by their collapse in the November 2010 elections. While Republicans across the country were having a banner night, California Republicans lost every single statewide election (including losing the governor's race by 13 points despite outspending the Democrats nearly 10 to 1). They also failed to pick up a single seat in either the legislature or Congress, losing one Assembly seat. California voters made explicitly clear in November 2010 that they do not like Republicans. That doesn't appear to have actually influenced the commission's deliberations, but it does mean the claim that Republicans had any reasonable expectation of gains is ridiculous.

And as it turns out, the Rose Institute is not a neutral observer, even though they were treated as one by ProPublica. John Burton and the CDP pointed out in their press release about the article that the Rose Institute is Republican-funded and had a score to settle with the commission...

Robert is exactly right. I'm 1st Vice-Chair and Field Operations Chair of the Ventura County Democratic Party, so I know a thing or two about this. My county is purple, with slightly more registered Democrats than Republicans, but due to voting patterns and the previous redistricting process, most of the local elected officials are Republican. It would be considered a "Republican area" by the Rose Institute.

Yes, Ventura County has had some big population growth. But as Robert says, it's mostly Latino population growth, as well as growth from people like me moving north from Los Angeles. Both of those population types tend to have no love lost for Republicans. So "population growth in Republican areas" actually weakens the Rose Institute's claims. It means that formerly red areas are getting bluer, making protecting Republican districts more difficult.

But the problems with ProPublica's story don't end there. Their article alleges that Democrats were well organized in attempting to game the process by sending in committed activists and pre-prepared alternative maps for the Commission, but Republicans and conservatives were not. That argument is simply untrue.

I was at the redistricting hearing in Oxnard. Conservative and Republican activists, many of them organized through the Chamber of Commerce, outnumbered Dem and progressive activists at the hearing. They used coordinated talking points and submitted prepared maps designed to protect the incumbent Republican districts held by Elton Gallegly (CA24) and Tony Strickland (SD19).

When the final maps in Ventura County turned out unfavorable to Republicans, it's not because Democrats out-lobbied Republicans. Quite the opposite. It's because demographic changes in Ventura County rendered Republican efforts to argue for their conservative incumbent protection ridiculous. Their arguments were essentially that their white-flight bedroom communities shouldn't be lumped in with "urban" and "different values" (read, black and Latino) communities in Los Angeles and Oxnard. They were comical arguments that I took some heat for intemperately calling racist at the time, and the Commission ignored them for very good reasons that had nothing to do with Democratic or progressive lobbying.

It's true that progressives attempted to sway the Commission. But so did conservatives. That's the whole point of the public process, particularly on an issue that would only interest the politically obsessed. What kind of person who doesn't have a partisan stake in politics is actively interested in the way these lines are drawn?

But perhaps the biggest problem with ProPublica's argument is the assumption that the State Democratic Party organized and coordinated to have the lines drawn as the Commission drew them. That's far from the truth.

Ten years ago, the California Democratic Party used gerrymandering the way all partisan state legislatures do: to protect its incumbents, even at the expense of doing what would be best to potentially pick up seats. The old maps protected Democrats and Republicans alike, leading to a dearth of competitive seats across the state. That lack of competitiveness is part of why voters wanted a non-partisan process in the first place. In my area, Democratic power and safety was largely minimized in order to maximize it elsewhere, resulting in largely protected Republican congressional and statehouse districts.

If the big power players in the Dem party had had their way, the maps would have been similar to those of a decade earlier, and protected incumbents again. I hated the old maps for that reason, and that's why I voted for the redistricting commission proposition, even though it was Democratic heresy at the time. I had confidence that a non-partisan process would actually be more favorable to us overall (though it might give some of our incumbents headaches) than the partisan one had been--particularly in my county, which had been gerrymandered to weaken Democratic power in order to maximize it elsewhere.

Now there are many areas, such as the Sherman vs. Berman and Osborn vs. Butler races in Los Angeles, where the entire Democratic power infrastructure has been overturned by the Commission, causing all sorts of inane distractions for the State Democratic Party, as each candidate's partisans attempt to game the endorsement process in their own favor. In the case of the Osborn versus Butler race, Betsy Butler left the area she used to represent because the new districts have made the race more challenging, and moved to a district that Torie Osborn was largely expected to run in. Betsy's abandonment of her old turf means that it will likely fall into Republican hands, hurting Dems' chances of taking a 2/3 supermajority in 2012. But since Betsy is a current Assemblymember and therefore technically an "incumbent" despite not having represented the district she is running for, Speaker Perez is leveraging major endorsement help in her direction.

And this messy situation is only one of many facing the CDP this year.

To put it mildly, these maps are not the ones that California Democratic Party power players would have concocted in smoke-filled backrooms if they had had their way.

In sum, ProPublica got it entirely backwards. The new maps do favor Dems overall. But that's largely in spite of the efforts of the CDP, not because of them. The real reason for the Dem gains in the non-partisan maps is demographic shifts and the implosion of the California Republican Party. ProPublica should have been able to do a little research and recognize that.

Update: one of the article's authors tweets the following:
I greatly respect your opinion, but we didn't say anything in our story about the California state democratic party.

Upon retrospect, this is true, but even more curious. The author seems to be implying that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other allies in Washington were orchestrating this from top to bottom. The only problem with that is that anyone with passing awareness of California Democratic politics knows that DCCC doesn't have the level of local connections and clout to pull something like this off. They would have had to go through the state Party and its county committees.

Also, given that the new maps endangered several Democratic Congressional incumbents, it's hard to see that these maps were the desired result for the DCCC, which has historically been significantly more interested in incumbent protection than in playing offense by expanding the map.

As far as my county is concerned, it's true that local grassroots activists on both sides tried to sway the process. But there was zero coordination with DCCC or other national Democratic entities to my knowledge.