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The Hidden Hands in Redistricting: Corporations and Other Powerful Interests

Opaque redistricting groups are being quietly bankrolled by corporations, unions and others. They are working not to help voters in the communities they claim to represent but to improve the prospects of their political allies or to harm their enemies.

Satellite photo courtesy of NASA

Their names suggest selfless dedication to democracy. Fair Districts Mass. Protect Your Vote. The Center for a Better New Jersey. And their stated goals are unarguable: In the partisan fight to redraw congressional districts, states should stick to the principle of one person, one vote.

But a ProPublica investigation has found that these groups and others are being quietly bankrolled by corporations, unions and other special interests. Their main interest in the once-a-decade political fight over redistricting is not to help voters in the communities they claim to represent but mainly to improve the prospects of their political allies or to harm their enemies.

The number of these purportedly independent redistricting groups is rising, but their ties remain murky. Contributions to such groups are not limited by campaign finance laws, and most states allow them to take unlimited amounts of money without disclosing the source.

Today’s story is the first chapter in an in-depth examination of how powerful players are turning to increasingly sophisticated tools and techniques to game the redistricting process, with voters ultimately losing.

For special interests, there’s a huge potential payoff from investing in such efforts.

“Reshaping a map is very powerful” for donors, said Spencer Kimball, a political consultant who is executive director of Boston-based Fair Districts Mass. “It’s a big opportunity to have influence at the state level and the congressional level not one race at a time but for 10 years.”

Skillful redistricting can, of course, help create Republican or Democratic districts, but it can also grace incumbents with virtually guaranteed re-election or leave them with nearly no chance at all. In the process, it can also create seats almost certain to be held by minorities or break those same groups apart, ensuring that they have almost no voice.

But it’s not cheap, and that’s where corporations and other outside interests come in. They can provide the cash for voter data, mapping consultants and lobbyists to influence state legislators, who are in charge of redistricting in most states. Outside interests can also fund the inevitable lawsuits that contest nearly every state's redistricting plan after it is unveiled.

In Minnesota, for instance, the Republicans’ legal efforts to influence redistricting are being financed through a group called Minnesotans for a Fair Redistricting.

Fair Redistricting describes itself as independent, but it has much of its leadership in common with the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a group with ties to the political empire of the Koch brothers, industrialists from Kansas who’ve spent millions funding conservative causes. The head of the Freedom Foundation, Annette Meeks, told ProPublica she has “no involvement” with Fair Redistricting. But both organizations’ tax filings list the same address: Meeks’ home address.

Fair Redistricting is registered under the name of her husband, Jack Meeks, who is also on the board of the Freedom Foundation. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Who is actually paying for Fair Redistricting’s lawsuit and lawyers? And what district lines are they pushing for? The group doesn’t have to say and has so far kept its finances and plans under wraps. Annette Meeks did not respond to questions about the group’s donors or its ties to the Koch brothers, but she said the group complies with all legal filing requirements. But the group’s public tax filings contain no information on its contributors.

Fair Districts Mass, which says it’s advocating better representation of minorities in and around Boston, is another window into how money can move through the system. The group describes itself as "citizen-funded." But it also sought permission from state election officials for unlimited corporate funding. Donations “can include corporate contributions,” the group’s website announces. “Better yet,” the site notes, “we are not required to file reports regarding donations or expenditures.”

The group says its proposed maps would lead to better representation of Latinos and African-Americans.

“Minorities are very underrepresented in Massachusetts politics,” said Kimball, the group’s executive director. “We’re here to change that.”

But minority groups say Fair Districts' proposed maps would not likely help them. (See our interactive feature showing the group’s maps and our analysis.)

“I don’t see a person of color getting elected in this district, if that’s the goal,” said Alejandra St. Guillen, executive director of Oiste, looking at one of the maps Fair Districts has touted as helping Latinos and African-Americans. Oiste has been fighting for increased Latino representation and civic participation in the state for more than a decade.

“Even though the numbers might look as if that might be favorable to communities of color,” St. Guillen said, “if you look at voting patterns, it actually wouldn’t be.”

Others from Massachusetts have said the proposals made by Fair Districts Mass wouldn’t help them at all. At a town hall meeting in Lynn, which would be cut out of its historic district along Boston’s North Shore by the proposal, labor unions, the city's chamber of commerce and politicians from both parties converged on the town hall, urging that the board not adopt a plan that would carve out Lynn.

Lynn's Latino business owners are "very proud to be a part of the North Shore," said Frances Martinez, executive director of the North Shore Latino Business Association. "Our business owners decided to come here because they know this is a place to stay and grow for their families. Please keep the district together."

What Fair Districts’ proposals would do is hurt the traditional pro-labor and Democratic incumbents in the area. For instance, Lynn’s notably pro-union congressman, John Tierney, would effectively be drawn out of a seat—a finding included in the group’s own research.

Fair Districts can raise unlimited, undisclosed cash for its efforts, thanks to an innovative argument it made to state election officials.

This strategy had its roots in a lesson learned 20 years ago by a Republican redistricting guru named Dan Winslow. During the 1990 redistricting cycle, Winslow twice sought permission from state election officials for a group called the Republican Redistricting Committee to accept unlimited corporate donations without having to disclose them.

At the time, Winslow argued that the group didn’t have specific political aims and would also provide redistricting resources to minority groups.

Each time, the board refused to exempt the organization from campaign finance laws on the grounds that a group with "Republican" in its name and Republican politicians as leaders could not credibly claim to be independent.

Last year, a lawyer in Winslow’s firm filed an almost identical request to accept unlimited corporate donations, but this time for a group that left "Republican" out of its name. The state agreed to his request. The group he was filing for? Fair Districts Mass.

Winslow, now a Republican state representative and legal adviser to Fair Districts, said the group has no partisan agenda.

“It’s not about shifting Massachusetts from Democrat to Republican,” Winslow said. “It creates an opportunity for challenges, for challengers to challenge the status quo.”

Fair Districts Mass Chairman Jack Robinson has run unsuccessfully for Congress three times as a Republican. Last year, when he announced the formation of Fair Districts, he said he was changing his registration to Independent.

Robinson said that change was important to Fair Districts’ “unique” ability to accept undisclosed corporate donations.

“In order to show that we are really nonpartisan, I decided to become an independent,” Robinson said.

Robinson also said the lack of disclosure has benefits.

“This is a very political process,” he said. “If you’re running a company in Newton, Mass., where Barney Frank is, and you want to donate to us, and our plan says Barney Frank has to run against another congressman, I could understand why people would not want to disclose their donations.” Frank is, of course, a powerful Democratic congressman.

The national Democratic and Republican parties are also working to limit disclosures about fundraising for redistricting. Both parties have raised and spent tens of millions of dollars on redistricting through their traditional conduits of money into state politics, the Republican State Leadership Committee and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. And both have been pushing to keep increasing parts of those efforts exempt from disclosure requirements.

Last year, the National Democratic Redistricting Trust sought and was granted permission by the Federal Election Commission to allow members of Congress to solicit unlimited, undisclosed donations for the trust. The group, set up to fund lawsuits that inevitably spring up during redistricting fights, argued that redistricting is not a primarily political activity. Legislators doing the same fundraising, but directly for their parties, would be violating McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws. The trust is currently funding the Democratic legal response to Minnesotans for a Fair Redistricting.

The GOP formed its own opaque group dedicated to redistricting. Making America’s Promise Secure, which was headed by prominent Republicans Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott, was able to secure 501(c)4 status from the IRS as a "social welfare"organization—the same status granted Disabled American Veterans and the Lumberjack World Championships Foundation. Groups with that status do not have to disclose donors or how they spend money. And there is no limit on how much individual donors can contribute.

Florida, railroads and friends

As old hands at redistricting like to say, it’s personal. Working at the state level, you can give lasting help, or demonstrate your loyalty, to not just one party or the other but to specific candidates, who may one day return the favor.

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.)  (AP file photo) Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) (AP file photo)

Congresswoman Corrine Brown, an African-American Democrat from Florida, appears to be a case in point. Brown represents one of the most irregularly shaped districts in the nation. It is 150 miles long but only the width of a highway bridge at its narrowest point and scoops heavily African-American neighborhoods out of Orlando, Gainesville and Jacksonville. (See our interactive map of Brown’s district and our analysis.)

The result of a deal between Republicans and minority representatives in the state legislature, the district and ones like it helped elect a more diverse congressional delegation but also ensured that the remaining districts would be whiter—and more Republican—because minority voters, who tend to vote for Democrats, had been carved out. Redistricting professionals call that “bleaching.”

Republicans gained control of the state legislature in 1996 after decades of Democratic control and have held it ever since.

Brown, then a state assemblywoman, had worked with Republicans to create the district. She subsequently ran for Congress in it and won. She has been unbeatable ever since. (Even though 2010 was a tough year for Democrats in Florida, she still won by a landslide.)

Her seat finally was threatened last year when a coalition of unions, civic groups and Democrats got a pair of anti-gerrymandering amendments on Florida’s ballot. The amendments banned legislative districts drawn to help or hurt particular incumbents or parties. To make it clear that the amendments were not an attempt to pre-empt the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they also explicitly ban the drawing of districts to deny representation to minority groups.

Florida’s black legislative caucus and the state chapter of the NAACP endorsed the amendments, as did Democracia, a Latino political group.

But Brown opposed the effort, becoming the “African-American Chairwoman” of a group called Protect Your Vote. The group, Brown said at news conferences and in public statements, would be a bulwark against the harm the amendments would do to minority voting rights.

The NAACP strongly condemned Brown’s position and issued a statement criticizing “the blatant use of scare tactics with African-Americans and Hispanics to justify the continued gerrymandering of districts that benefit only politicians.”

Though Protect Your Vote had little support from representatives of the minority groups whose rights it was supposedly trying to protect, it had a lot of support from corporate donors, who gave nearly $800,000. (The contributions were reported because they related to a ballot measure. Normally, donations to Florida redistricting efforts don’t have to be disclosed.)

Among Protect Your Vote’s supporters were two of Brown’s own corporate donors.

Last year, Honeywell International PAC gave Protect Your Vote $25,000. The same year, the PAC gave Corrine Brown’s campaign $10,000. Also in 2010, Honeywell hired a former Brown aide as a lobbyist, according to federal lobbying disclosures. And many of the company’s government contracts fall under the purview of Brown’s membership on the Transportation and Infrastructure and Veterans’ Affairs committees.

In a statement, Honeywell said its PAC contributed money to defeat the anti-gerrymandering amendments because it supports “redistricting that is consistent with the historical practices that have served the State’s many diverse constituents well for decades.”

Another $25,000 donation to Protect Your Vote came from CSX Transportation Corp., a Jacksonville-based railroad and trucking company.

CSX has a long, friendly history with Brown, the ranking Democratic member of the House subcommittee on railroads.

Brown championed the controversial SunRail commuter rail project, using her position on the subcommittee to help secure federal funding that made the $1.2 billion project possible. The SunRail deal is worth more than $600 million to CSX. (Here's a video of Brown on the House floor extolling the virtues of the plan.)  

Federal officials raised questions about just how many commuters the project would serve, and the Federal Transit Administration ranked the SunRail project last in terms of cost effectiveness on a recent list of national projects in the “final design” phase.

“The Protect Your Vote campaign had strong, bipartisan support, and was intended to maintain the integrity of reapportionment,” said CSX spokesman Gary Sease. “As a Florida-based corporation, we supported this bipartisan initiative.”

In November 2010, the Florida amendments passed despite Protect Your Vote’s efforts. The group filed an appeal in federal court shortly thereafter, alleging, among other things, that the new redistricting methodology outlined in the amendments did not do enough to protect incumbents. The suit was thrown out Sept. 9.

Brown and Protect Your Vote filed an appeal, vowing to take the case as far as the Supreme Court.

Brown declined to comment, saying it was a legal matter.

Unions and others play the game in California

Corporations, of course, are not the only special interests that have intervened in the redistricting process in less-than-transparent ways.

Last year, unions and others spent millions in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to kill a proposition making redistricting fairer and more transparent in California. The proposition put redistricting in the hands of a nonpartisan commission, a move opposed by Democratic politicians in the state legislature and Congress who stood to lose comfortable districts that in many cases were drawn personally for them.

The group called itself Yes on Fair, Yes on 27, No on 20—A Coalition of Entrepreneurs, Working People, Businesses, Community Leaders Such as Karen Bass, & Other Concerned Citizens Devoted to Eliminating Bureaucratic Waste. But most of the more than $7 million the group raised came from unions, large individual donations from prominent Democratic donors like George Soros—and no fewer than 35 Democratic politicians. (Disclosure: A Soros foundation has also provided a small portion of ProPublica’s funding.)

Among the group’s donors were Nancy Pelosi; above-mentioned "community leader" Karen Bass, who was speaker of the state assembly at the time and has since been elected to Congress; and Congresswoman Lois Capps, whose coast-hugging district was so long and narrow it was nicknamed the “ribbon of shame.”

Bass now says she supported the idea of an independent redistricting commission. However, based on how the commission was designed, “I was concerned about the impact on representation from communities of color.”

Capps did not respond to requests for comment.

The group immediately spent its cash to deploy some of the most questionable tactics endemic to California’s ballot-measure system. Nearly $3 million was spent on professional signature gatherers and another $1.8 million on California’s notoriously misleading voter guides. The mailers come from legitimate-sounding groups that are actually fictions cooked up by political consultants to mislead voters.

Though Yes on Fair was funded exclusively by Democratic interests, it spent $64,000 on the “Continuing the Republican Revolution” voter guide, which featured a bald eagle and a quote honoring Ronald Reagan at the top but urged voters to reject the citizens’ redistricting commission on the grounds that it represented bureaucratic waste. Similar voter guides were sent out representing fictitious religious, feminist, environmentalist and law-enforcement groups. Perhaps the most insidious was the “Our Voice Latino Voter Guide,” which urged a vote against establishing the citizens' commission even though Latinos stood to greatly benefit from it.

Despite Yes on Fair’s efforts, the measure for the commission passed anyway.

Once the commission was created, it offered another, limited glimpse into business interests’ attempts to influence redistricting.

An early participant in the state’s redistricting process was the California Institute for Jobs, Economy and Education, which submitted proposed district maps and testified before the redistricting commission.

But there is little evidence of the institute’s existence. It has no website and has published no scholarly research. The institute first shows up in public records, registered as a corporation in California in May 2011, just after the redistricting process had begun. It is registered with the same street address and suite number as Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, a law firm that specializes in campaign finance and lobbying law.

The entity’s true purpose, according to someone close to it, was to represent “business interests” across California. Top-level individuals involved with the so-called institute also have ties to JOBS PAC, a pro-business committee in California that lists Philip Morris, AT&T and Chevron as donors.

Tom Hiltachk, managing partner at the firm that shares its address with the institute, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Intern Ariel Wittenberg also contributed reporting to this story. Azavea provided geographic services.

It is time to give the House of Representatives back to the People by quadrupling the size of the house.  Then, these underhanded terrorists whould have little to ‘redistrict’, and almost every minority would have true representation, which is what a represenattive government is all about.  And this will be a whole lot CHEAPER then the what we pay for now in unethical laws and regulations.

Troy Bouffard

Sep. 23, 2011, 9:56 a.m.

Currently in Alaska, a lawsuit is underway set to begin in Jan ‘12. The heavily partisan redistricting board, whose director passed away during deliberations, submitted a map intended to destroy the State Senate Bipartisan Majority. Unfortunate for them, the board left themselves vulnerable to litigation when they drew district that starts in Fairbanks and ends at the Bering Sea (proposed district 38).
Considering that Federal mandates for required native representation and the fact that Alaskan Natives are the single most oppressed minority group in the nation (a very, very sad truth), I believe that there’s an enlightening story to be told here.

Redistricting…gerrymandering…me, I tend to look to who uses a tool the most and what the use of that tool produces when I consider the threats or benefits associated with that tool.

Texas (my, but I point to them a lot…they do manage to set the standard for political chicanery) is my base case:  The fact that DeLay and the Republicans down there forced a redistricting in a year not associated with the Census, consequently forcing a shift of political power to the Republicans, tells me a lot about redistricting.

(The Wikipedia entry is educational:  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2003_Texas_redistricting )

But that is not the primary result I am interested in…I want to know what happens to the American people in a state that has had its districts redrawn by powerful special interests and their proxies. 

And what is happening to Texas is…a human tragedy.  Too much to detail in a single comment, but everyone whose state faces redistricting by corporate and wealthy interests should review this website - and the downloadable document there - for a glimpse of their own future:

texaslsg.org/texasonthebrink/

The quote that I would pick out to summarize what the special interests can do to you with redistricting is:  “In Texas today, the American dream is distant.”

That’s a heck of an article with a lot of good depth on both (wrong) sides of the issue.  It’s always been assumed that moves to change/retain districting are politically-motivated and driven by special interests, but this is the first time I’ve seen proof outlined in any detail.

The problem is…how do you fix something like this, that even occurs at the local level (where the issue is often district-based versus at-large voting, by me).  There’s no way to prevent someone from trying to manipulate the vote except maybe to completely change the districts every year, wasting their money and giving politicians a moving target.

Joe gives what might be a good start, and the 435 limit is completely artificial and placed in 1910 (interestingly, to resolve a districting dispute), but I’m not sure that more politicians is necessarily better.  Who’s to say how many “representatives” max out the credit lines of the special interests?

Realizing that this wouldn’t be acceptable today, but I wonder if—in an age of cheap persistent communication—“districts” as geographical entities are past their prime.  Imagine instead forming a district with a couple hundred thousand of your closest friends, and selecting a representative from the group.  In a scenario like that, only the voters have control over districts and special interests are themselves stranded in groups of people who already support them.

Or have I just created another kind of political party to be subverted?

One other comment along similar lines:  How is it acceptable, in this day and age, to assume that a person is only fit to be in an office if he or she is ethnically similar to those voting?  A Latino Congressman is no less a target for quid pro quo campaign contributions from large special interests run by (for the sake of argument) evil white people than his white opponent.

Me, I think redistricting shouldn’t even be in the hands of politicians; computers can do it relatively simply with the inputs of county and municipal boundaries, Census data, and the number of Representatives allocated to that state.

But that - the manipulation of political boundaries to favor one or the other major political party - isn’t the most significant problem our system of government faces in my opinion.

I personally believe we need to reevaluate the concept of state and national “capitals”.  They no longer serve the interests of the People.  When they were originally created, it was to provide our public “servants” with a place where they could gather to discuss proposed legislation. 

That requirement is obsolete, thanks to technology; now, capitals concentrate access to political representation - that is, they make it easier for those who would corrupt our politicians to access them.  And concentrating politicians in “capitals” enables another factor to work:  Corruption is subject to peer pressure just like smoking pot or drinking alcohol to a juvenile is in that people succumb to “everybody is doing it” if they are not properly supervised.

I don’t think we can fix Washington (and many state capitals); I think we need to break it down.  Move Congress back home…back to whom they presumably represent. 

There is no technological barrier to having every member of Congress vote from their homes or a neighborhood office where their neighbors can see (and report) when the bagmen of the wealthy and the corporations deliver their promises of riches in the legal but heinous forms of “speaking fees” and symbolic corporate positions after they leave office.

Without capitals, politicians would be isolated from the behavior of their political peers…that is, from the words and offers of those who are already corrupt - but not from analyzing and discussing proposed legislation; video conferencing is all they need to interact.  Think of how much honesty would contaminate (contaminate, for honesty is apparently the exception, now) our political system were every word and bargain recorded…

And think of the influence on lobbyists, should they have to make their deals publicly rather than in the dark of Congressional offices and the clubs and restaurants of Washington…lolllll…if those lobbyists had to walk past “Aunt Bessie” and the noose she had knitted over the winter before they could corrupt her representative.

Think of how much better our representatives and Senators might be able to remember their jobs…the faces of who they are supposed to be representing…if they lunched with their constituents at the neighborhood’s corner diner rather than with some of the wealthiest people in the world in the expensive - and intentionally private - restaurants of Washington.

James B Storer

Sep. 23, 2011, 11:29 a.m.

Joe, your comment:  “It is time to give the House of Representatives back to the People by quadrupling the size of the house:” and John’s follow up remark points to a serious problem for which I am unable to conjure up a solution.  The problem with a fixed house membership serving a rapidly expanding population left us (ordinary individuals) with absolutely no representation.  We have one rep serving 600,000 or so citizens.  There is no possibility of your truly gaining the ear of “your” representative.  Large corporations possessing vast sums of money progressively gain more and more control of the Senate, House, Supreme Court, Executive branch, and military.  A house whose members would each represent 60,000 or so citizens would contain nearly 10,000 members.  That is totally impractical, and our present 435 representatives cause enough destruction and confusion.
  This gerrymandering and redistricting is going to become a really major problem by the day, and worldwide – make no mistake about it -.  It is not just a mess peculiar to the United States and our particularly corrupt political predicament.  Even if some of our common brains could come up with practical suggestions for a cure it is seemingly impossible that they could be put into play in any broad-based way.  (Sorry, I have my pessimistic moments.)
  Skartishu, Granby MO

@James B. Storer:  Actually, joe’s idea is quite doable…if we eliminate the concept of “capitals”.

10,000 Representatives using technology to discuss something and form an opinion and then vote on that subject is a piece of cake - if we eliminate the idea that they all have to be in the same place to do it.

And they don’t…Facebook, for instance, currently manages 750 million users…

I like his idea in that it would make corrupting our political system increasingly - and perhaps prohibitively - expensive.  The way things stand now, any one of our multinational corporations, banks, or Wall Street brokerages can afford to buy all of our Representatives.

(Perhaps they sell themselves too cheaply?  lollll…a heckuva note.)

Politics Matters

Sep. 23, 2011, 12:15 p.m.

Fred Hudson, 2nd Vice-Chair of the Virginia Democratic Party, discusses redistricting and gerrymandering on the locally-produced Charlottesville, VA, politics interview program Politics Matters with host and producer Jan Madeleine Paynter: http://bit.ly/pm-hudson. The current program features Bob Gibson, Executive Director of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, discussing journalism and the media.

By the way:  That - purchasing political influence - is precisely why I view Reagan not as a “great American” but as one of the greatest enemies of America who ever lived.

It is simple logic to say that the kind of person who is most likely to want all of the money in the world is precisely the kind of person who would seek to use any conceivable method to get all of the money in the world.

Reagan - with his “flood-up/trickle-down” economics (or “voodoo” economics, if you’re a traditionalist) - enabled that sort of individual to attain much more liquidity, which they of course deployed to harvest yet more liquidity…to include using that new-found liquidity to corrupt our political process (most notably by making the Republicans a wholly-owned party - but such people have made great inroads into the Democratic party, as well.)

When Reagan and the Republicans used their ability to block the weaning of America from oil and then used the economic shocks of oil price variability and manipulation to make “flood-up/trickle-down” economics palatable to the naive in America, the corruption of our political system and the decay of America skipped right over “predictable” and became “inevitable”.

So to me, any method of making our political system more resistant to that liquidity - to include increasing the numbers of politicians and so the expense of corrupting the system - is a heckuva good idea.

This isn’t just a battle over regulations…and taxes…a nd wealth…and representation; this is a battle for the continued existence of democracy and so the concept of America.  If the American concept of all men are created equal is replaced by wealth determines influence, status, value, and even individual longevity, then America is gone, too. 

We’ll either just disintegrate or be picked like a ripe fruit by some more cohesive and farsighted nation.

(Hindsight:  I should have said overripe fruit as that analogy is far more appropriate.  The tree - the American people and the American way - that bore those fruits - the wealthy - has been sacrificed to benefit those fruits’ brief time of revelry in the sun.)

There is a simple solution to the disgraceful buying and selling of political America.  Stop the money.  No money, no influence.  No lobbyists, no PACs, no SuperPACs, no bundling.  No money.  Public funding for public office seekers.  And real prison, in the general population real prison, for those who take money.

It won’t happen in today’s America, but it’s a nice dream.  A new American Dream in fact.

Actually, taking your idea to its ultimate extension, Steve, why bother with representation at all?

I mean, sure, we all have decades of propaganda behind us saying that the masses are horrible, uneducated cretins who’ll kill us (whoever “we” are—I’m not part of the masses?) if we let them run amok.  Do we really need to hire people to merely aggregate our opinions (whether empirically, principly, or fraudulently) to protect us from the unwashed at all?

After all, if we can manage thousands of representatives, why not bite the bullet and give everybody a real vote?  If it empowered people, it could be worth footing the bill for a cheapo tablet computer for every registered voter.  Such a system could provide capsule summaries of all sides of an issue to help inform an opinion.  And rigorous unchangeable rules, an executive, and independent courts would prevent, I don’t know, the passing of a bill to exterminate redheads or something.

On the other hand, I see problems with security and transparency.

Such a system (even just for representatives) is easy to corrupt on the back end, with access.  And the larger the population and the more separate, the easier it is to pull off a scam.  I can easily build a voting system that reports whatever result I want to see, while still making everybody think their vote was counted correctly.

The other issue is that, away from Washington (and the state capitals), it becomes a slightly harder sell that voting should be open and accountable.  If my representative (or neighbor, to push this further) is casting his vote for a bill in the privacy of his own home, is it right to demand that we know how they voted?  Are we subjecting them to retribution for disagreeing with the wrong people?

I like the principle, but it’d need more study.  It’d also take a lot of tar and feathers to get those currently in power to allow such a thing, since it directly attacks their authority and comfort.

Actually, Randy, I’d like to suggest a step further (and sorry for multiple postings):  No money AT ALL.

You’ve got the Internet.  You have public debates.  You have volunteers.  If you need to spend a dime to explain why you should be elected, then you don’t have what it takes to convince your opposition and so shouldn’t be in office at all.

Worried that it’d be hard to enforce?  Then make the candidates police themselves by kicking them out of the race and into prison for violating the rule as a minimum sentence.  They’ll make sure to point out any infraction and they’ll keep perfect records to avoid getting framed.

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

Sep. 23, 2011, 1:50 p.m.

If you want to eliminate gerrymandering, elimate the congressional districts.  All congressional candidates would have to run at large.  If a State had a population sufficient to warrant, say, 20 congresscritters, each voter would be allowed to cast 20 votes.  The voter could cast all of his 20 votes for a single congressional candidate, cast one of his 20 votes for 20 different congressional candidates, or in any combination he desired.  After the votes were tallied, the top 20 vote getters in the state would represent the state in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Of course, this proposed solution would not eliminate the “problem” of money in politics.  Money is speech.  Speech is Free.  Get used to it, “B”.

lollll…you should be in Congress, John; you’ve got verbose arguments that, in the end, advocate protecting the status quo down to an art.

Unfortunate, isn’t it, that the status quo currently serves only America’s wealthiest and their corporations?

Steve Muratore

Sep. 23, 2011, 9:23 p.m.

This is also happening in Arizona.  Google “Fair Trust Arizona” to see. I’ve covered it in the Arizona Eagletarian blog http://stevemuratore.blogspot.com

Gerrymandering has been around for decades.  This onslaught has been the gift of the roberts activist republican court through ‘citizens united’ ruling.

We must remember that when the purpose was to have more fair representation it was a good thing ..then it began to be bastardized to create fifedoms for the corporate parties. This is no longer in the interest of representation but to the benefit of the corporations and special interests who DO NOT REPRESENT THE BEST INTERESTS PEOPLE!

Let us not forget Tom Delay..and others..Shameless!

I’m not sure what this article is talking about - as a California resident and a Democrat, all my Democratic flyers, etc. supported the measure. ??

James B Storer

Sep. 24, 2011, 1:49 p.m.

ibsteve2u:  Your reply to my comment stated “Actually, Joe’s idea is quite doable…if we eliminate the concept of capitals.”  To no avail, I had given some thought to this matter (gerrymandering, representatives having to represent too many people, etc) four or five years ago.  As you say, the state of computer technology is so great that collating and coordinating the work of 10,000 representatives (or sub representatives) away from a central Capitol would be easy.  We agree that the concept of a centralized Capitol is quite archaic today.
I could not solve the problem of how to elect these representatives without running into the same problem of designating districts, thus retaining redistricting and gerrymandering again, which is what we are trying to eliminate.  To elect them statewide (as with Senators) is not feasible for fair representation, because high density population centers would annihilate representation for rural areas.
Also, electing at large duplicates the senate procedure, so we might as well eliminates the lower house and simply elect 10,000 Senators.  I am glad you gentlemen are discussing this urgent matter and hope a collective viable solution will float up.
  Skartishu, Granby MO

Bernice Vetsch

Sep. 25, 2011, 2:04 p.m.

Minnesota has more than once turned the task of redistricting over to a panel of judges when it looked as though the legislature would not be able to achieve a fair outcome.  This worked very well and will probably have to be used this time as well, since both houses of our legislature are controlled by the far right.  (We do, fortunately, have a fantastic fighter of a governor.) 

Annette Meeks, who claims in the article to be unaware of the redistricting effort runs a think tank that is one of two such that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) lists at its web site as its promoters of the corporatist agenda in our state.  See alexexposed.org.

Walter D., I like your idea for electing reps.  Can we combine it with an election holiday and voting reforms?  I’m a fan of a mandatory constitutional convention every 50 years to address constitutional problems that arise due to societal changes and your alteration could be made then.

Only 8 of the world body’s 15 members will support the bid!
And later on even if statehood is granted, there will still be no peace between two warring groups of same origin, fighting blindly for centuries over nonsense religious reasons or ‘‘selfish small minded issues” -with which the Creator has no link now and never ever had before too; unless with totally honest, unlike the past, negotiations and truly meant commitments for infinite time both sides agree to live side by side like one country- a piece of land divided in south and north-two parts in the middle! Time is coming for border lifting and perhaps these foolish two: Israel and Palestine will feel ashamed later when e.g. Bangladesh and India will be lifting their borders to become one piece of land again (Still one piece but two in human minds only because of unfruitful personal ambitions of a few guys in control of public emotion!


Now, where are those so self-claimed religious old-political mercy-makers?

Everybody better listen carefully to the advice and requests made by the Great Mr. Obama!

One can understand the capacities of the Lions and the Tigers now, as they are falling one after another; the time will start telling soon about the order of these pieces of lands: Algeria, Sudan, Somalia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia etc. There will be no bloodshed but the heads will be ousted in a evolutionary chain reactions because the older Crocodile, surviving for centuries out of sight, is now transparently in the control of North-American power and no one has to confusingly wonder anymore about the whereabouts of the giant Crocodile and its eggs or wasting time arguing about which one came first on earth? The egg or the Crocodile?

The fools have no idea that the digital technology and money are now more powerfully effective than guns and there won’t be World Wars anymore, so the businesses of War weapons are bound to go bankrupt! Oil crisis, global warming etc. are nothing but business propaganda.
The days are not too far when the mercy-maker: religious-type businessmen themselves have to start begging for mercy from UN power, if UN itself can secure its own position on the foundation of possible global unanimous support.


Shahislam

All these dreams of institutional solutions are pointless.  The problem is that a democracy cannot funtion with voters who are ignorant, ignorant about issues, ignorant about the political system and how it works, ignorant about government and how it works.  Nowadays a significant percentage of them subscribe to the puerile idea that an industrialized society of over 300 million people doesn’t even need government!  That is the foundational problem.

Steve, if you don’t have an interest in discussion and would rather make unfounded insults, that’s fine.

I’m not trying to talk anybody out of anything.  I’m thinking out loud and trying to engage in conversation.  If pointing out obstacles is “defending the status quo,” rather than trying to find a way to avoid the hurdles, then I don’t want you driving on the same roads I’m on.

I’m asking serious questions:  Why bother with representation?  How can we make it work?  How can we get around the people with a vested interest?

If you’re not interested in answering those questions, I’d accuse you of protecting the status quo by providing implausible alternatives and standing around bitching that nobody is making it happen.

The nation-state (as opposed to tribes, city-states, coalitions, and empires) is a product of the same thinking that brought us the industrial revolution.  Centralization led to exploiting economies of scale and getting things done.  But industry and nation-state governments are both failing, and it is absolutely time to move on to something that’ll work.  But it needs the buy-in of the people with the purse strings and the guns…

Michael Hiner

Sep. 26, 2011, 9:54 a.m.

This was a very provocative article.  I appreciate the balanced reporting.  The question that we still struggle to answer is how to represent our population and put the archaic separatism of race on the book shelf with other learned historical tomes.

@John - You say:  “Centralization led to exploiting economies of scale and getting things done.  But industry and nation-state governments are both failing, and it is absolutely time to move on to something that’ll work.  But it needs the buy-in of the people with the purse strings and the guns…”

As you just condemned centralized government, I presume disbanding the United States is your goal?  That is just “kicking the can down the road”, as gerrymandering is alive and well in the states which have made the most noise about secession.  It would in fact be far easier to inflict corporate totalitarianism - dictatorship by a committee of the right’s wealthy elite - upon smaller, regional governments as that shrinking further concentrates political control reducing the expense that Corporate America’s owner/operators would face. 

Bear in mind the fact that - once the Federal government is destroyed - they don’t need control of the entire geographical area of the existing United States.  They just need a chunk of it with access to natural resources and air and seaports and railroads and highways.  Coupled with control of that region’s government, they would have the right’s nirvana:  The twin abilities to poison the environment and work those who managed to survive the environmental toxins to death.

That would jack their profits up, and that is what they truly want…any talk from any of the right’s variants (Republican, Tea Party, or Libertarians) of some higher motive such as morality, religion, or freedom is just smoke and mirrors designed to get their base to empower their own enslavement.  That is the driver behind the calls for destroying the Federal government….it is easy to buy state governments, but far more difficult to buy - and retain - control of the Federal government.  Those people most intent upon disbanding the United States have, in my experience, shared a common characteristic:  They despise the Federal government because it can reach across all states and territories and inhibit their ability to prey upon the American people in their roles as consumers and “labor”.

I would anticipate regions in a disbanded United States to quickly begin to resemble East Berlin, and for precisely the same reason:  Those regions which fell into the hands of our right would have to forcibly retain their populations once the environmental degradation began killing children and parents began dying at increased rates from ever more dangerous work environments.  Those threats on top of starvation wages would drive a mass exodus…at which point the region’s inhabitants would discover that they had allowed themselves to be transformed into the epitome of what the right calls “a friendly labor market”:  Slave labor.

The only viable solution for our government is to cut the money out of the picture by officially recognizing that purchasing or selling political influence is treason - and deliver appropriate penalties swiftly.  Money is not speech, and corporations are not people.  Either all men and women are created equal and remain equal for the purposes of democracy - that is, when it comes to the creation, guidance, and oversight of government - or not only our regulations but our criminal laws are a farce.

By which I mean that the elimination of regulations that prevent the wealthy from preying on the many should be accompanied by the declaration that any and all criminal laws that prevent the individual from intimately seeking redress from the wealthy are null and void.  (They wouldn’t be, of course…not officially, anyway.)

Steve, you really only scan for keywords and respond rather than reading my posts, I think.

Did I say anything about eliminating infrastructure?

You made a good point that centralizing our representatives is harmful.  Joe made the good point that we’re under-represented (artificially, as it turns out).  I’m taking this a small step further and saying that a dedicated class of politicians is wasteful, spending money to basically supply targets for corruption.

The Industrial Revolution (and the nation-state) were about centralizing information and resources and directing the results (laws or products) outward to the population.  It was a phenomenal idea that changed the world from a serf population to relative affluence even in slums.

However, we’re hitting limits.  We’re using too much energy to supply it centrally, and solar panels and windmills/bands will probably distrubute it.  Companies don’t find it worth paying labor costs, meaning a slow move to automation and possibly home fabrication, eventually (a CNC router, a 3D printer, and a robot arm can be had for about the price and space of a car).  And we have too much information (some of it true, even!) and too many lobbyists working to corrupt too few defenders.

This country, despite its failings, continues to do wonderful things.  It, despite attacks by the media, other big industries, and politicians, still inspires people to do better.  There’s no reason to get rid of it.  However, we need to evolve before we die off, and I’m starting to think that getting rid of “middle management” (professional legislators) might be the way to go.

Keep an elected President with veto power to prevent mob rule.  Keep the judiciary up to the Supreme Court as a final brake on unconstitutional direction.  But remove Congress from the picture and allow people to directly deliberate and vote bills into law.

We can (as politicians surely do) call our fellow Americans ignorant and biased all we want, but it’s a heck of a lot harder to lobby a hundred million voters than even thousands of representatives.

Maybe it’s too extreme, but I don’t think so, and I’m willing to see intermediate steps like those you and Joe propose.  But (as I said) even getting THERE means convincing the dudes who pull money out of the air and have access to guns that they should give up a lot of their power…

I definitely agree on the money issue, either way.  Especially today, if the only way you can get a point across is by making short films (which is what a commercial boils down to), then you shouldn’t have support.

I could get on board with it being treason, but I’d rather just bounce them from the race with a fine and jail time.  I figure, since many politicians are friends anyway in their personal lives, they’re likely to protect each other from treason accusations, whereas lower stakes should mean they’ll watch each other’s pennies like nobody’s business.

James B Storer

Sep. 26, 2011, 1:06 p.m.

We are seeking a two-fold solution:  1, we must increase the house membership tremendously to provide the individual with some semblance of representation, and 2, we must remove politics from the redistricting (gerrymandering) process.  I am still totally in the dark as to how to accomplish these goals.
    To achieve success as a by product of a full-blown armed revolution does not seem realistically feasible.  This nation possesses an almost unbelievably powerful and versatile all volunteer military.  It is totally loyal to the incumbency, regardless which Party thinks it is in control.
  To believe it possible to persuade the government or either Party to cooperate in any effort to remove redistricting from political control is wishful thing, I believe.  Neither Party really gives a damn about the well-being of the nation at this point.  They are controlled and intimidated by corporate encroachment and are only interested in maintaining the tenuous power that they think they still possess.
  Do we have “solutions”?  Sure, -but, workable ones?  Today, I think we are still stuck with the slow and dreary process of working through the courts, one district at a time.      Skartishu, Granby MO

@John:  I don’t think direct democracy will get it done for at least one reason:  Time. 

To properly examine the work currently being done by Congress is a full-time job; only those who have all day to devote to the job will be able to make educated and informed decisions - and right there we have restricted the potential population to the retired and the unemployed and the paid workers of those who can afford to pay workers - the wealthy few.  I.e., no significant change. 

Presenting a “capsule” of information - condensing the issues and possible outcomes down to mere paragraphs - to educate the time-constrained is also a non-starter; paid staffers and lobbyists writing those capsules can easily use language that would trigger the well-known biases that exist in America and so manipulate the receptiveness of the voter.

Also:  I think you are presumptuous to accuse me of “scanning for keywords”.  I certainly noticed the contradiction between your:

“were about centralizing information and resources and directing the results (laws or products) outward to the population.  It was a phenomenal idea that changed the world from a serf population to relative affluence even in slums.  However, we’re hitting limits.  [...]  I’m starting to think that getting rid of “middle management” (professional legislators) might be the way to go.”

and your:

“If my representative (or neighbor, to push this further) is casting his vote for a bill in the privacy of his own home, is it right to demand that we know how they voted?”

I.e., as soon as a way of decentralizing government with the intent of making the secret corruption of that government more difficult to achieve is brought up, you create an argument to ensure that corruption can still be secretly achieved by transforming a public servant into a private individual who, instead of being accountable to the public, is to be shielded from public view so that they have zero accountability.

And further (as I suspect you know) it is actually easier to use “black boxes” on the communications infrastructure to corrupt the voting of the 235 million Americans who are of voting age than it is to corrupt the votes of the far smaller numbers involved in a representative democracy. 

Getting 235 million Americans together to “compare notes” is an impossibility…thus the relationship between how the individual American voted and how that vote was recorded would be extremely vulnerable to tampering.  Particularly in light of the fact that such as you would probably demand that the votes be kept secret to protect the individual’s right to privacy (I do not see how you would not, given that you jumped at the opportunity to apply same to the idea of a distributed government), making presenting a false display to an individual voter when their vote was actually recorded differently…a piece of cake.  A piece of cake that, thanks to computers, would make replicating the deception across 100 million voters only a larger piece of cake.

(You might conclude that I believe the switch to electronic voting machines followed by the installation of Patriot Act-enabled “black boxes” in communications nexuses across America was an extremely unfortunate combination.  And you would be right.)

But keeping a public running tally of the votes of 435 Representatives and 100 Senators (or even 10,000 of the former and 2,500 of the latter) who are voting in a supervised situation (i.e., from their neighborhoods and cities where their constituents can actually access and influence them unlike the current scenario wherein influencing a member of Congress has a base price of at least a round trip ticket to Washington, D.C.) is a piece of cake. 

Each individual - and the larger electorate - would be able to see both how their vote is recorded and the total vote count.  The only way you could break it is to insist that the individual Senator or Representative had a “right to privacy” - which would mean that you could change and record their votes any old way you wanted to, and none of their fellow members of Congress would have the capability of making them aware of any anomalies by asking questions such as “What the…:?  Why are you voting the Republican line?”.

I confess that I was amused when you suggested precisely that while insisting that direct democracy - which would be equally non-transparent but multiplied exponentially - would be a functional solution.

See, that’s exactly why I’m accusing you of just scanning through, because you just argued something I specifically didn’t say.

The “contradiction”?  That’s something I brought up as a potential problem.  Transparency is important.  Privacy to a non-servant is important.  A direct democracy would need to find a way to reconcile the two.

I also detailed the “black box” problem and called it a problem, so raising it as something I hadn’t thought of makes me a little less presumptuous, I think.

But that’s just me being petty.  You might well be right that these are insurmountable problems (though I’m not sure that’s the case, given enough effort), so now to the next issue:

How would you propose to get Congress out of Washington and/or convince them to share power with additional legislators?  People tend not to go into politics with an interest in reducing their influence, after all.

@John:  The same way as I would cut the money ties that bind Congress into the servitude of America’s wealthiest:  By Constitutional Amendment.

There is certainly precedent; our nation has previously enacted Amendments that affected representation in Congress…for instance, the 17th Amendment that laid out how Senators are to be elected, their terms, and so forth.

The battle, of course, would be “in the streets” for the hearts and minds of the American people as a consequence of the successful assault upon representative democracy that was carried out by the “conservative” pseudo-justices on the Supreme Court.  Specifically, that betrayal - that treachery - that we know as Citizens United

When I ponder the volume of lies that will likely gush forth from the right’s professional prostitutes should the American people begin to take steps to reclaim their government - and so their country - I am almost amused.  We might need another Noah to survive the flood.

Re: ibsteve2u comment on alowing computers to do it… Careful! Computers are only as good as their programmers! Think Diebold voting machines! Garbage in, Conservative Corporatives out! A plan Rick Perry can get behind for sure!

lolll…I agree, crloftin; Corporate America is pretty far gone. 

Which is why I would turn the job over to the open source community and ensure the platform used was Linux.

Daniel Greenfield

Sep. 27, 2011, 2:38 a.m.

How about proportional representation?
Why does it have to be single member districts? The notion that a congressman I didn’t vote for represents me better just because he is from my area than one I did one vote for from my state is simply put stupid.

crloftin and Steve, the solution isn’t in the software, it’s in the data.  Provide the breakdown of votes at every voting center, and it’ll be very clear when there’s fraud.

That’s the Diebold problem:  They get to hide their inputs behind “privacy.”  But when you or I can demand a list of every Congressional vote placed and compare it to what your Congressman says, fraud can’t exist unless everybody’s willing to lie the same way.

Daniel, off the cuff, my worry is that proportional representation seems like it always institutionalizes a limited number of political parties.  And any system which automatically excludes views unpopular with party leaders seems to me like a bad direction, sort of machine politics at its finest.

I could imagine where some number of people can sponsor a representative, maybe, as sort of a “voluntary district,” but that makes it impossible to predict where the geographical districts will be once the volunteers have been removed.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how stupid it is for people to live with representation they disagree with.  Disagreement is a healthy thing, something that our “bipartisan” policylaundering and sulking government has forgotten.

James B Storer

Sep. 28, 2011, 9:05 a.m.

In previous comments I stated that it seems impossible to remove redistricting from partisan politics.  I was probably being too cynical.  We seem to have come to basic agreement, through the large number of comments above, that handling the complicated logistics of government and the politics thereof could be incredibly easy to achieve with the computer technology available today.
  Therefore, I agree with another suggestion above, that redistricting by computer could be even more easily accomplished.  It is simply applying arithmetic that is basic to computer technology.  Once such a program is installed, political parties would be out of the “gerrymander” picture.  The nation could be divided into ten-thousand districts, and redistricting would be computer accomplished each ten years.
  Each district would be served by a home based representative who would be politically elected, but would have no control concerning the boundary of his/her district.
The problem of course is the basic one of getting such a program instituted, but I believe the parties might give some ground along this line.
  Skartishu, Granby MO

James B Storer

Sep. 29, 2011, 12:13 p.m.

There is the problem with going forward with such ambitious plans as we are discussing is that a Constitutional Amendment seems to be necessary, and this is a major hurdle.

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

Oct. 20, 2011, 1:32 p.m.

As I said before, the way to avoid the ridiculous Congressional districts produced by gerrymandering is to eliminate the districts altogether.  All congress critters would be elected at large via cumulative voting.  Here is how it would work:  If the most recent Census awarded, say, 20 house seats to a certain state, then when a voter in that state showed up at the voting booth on election day, that voter would be handed a ballot (or a computer display) with spaces for 20 names.The voter could then vote once for twenty different candidates or twenty times for the same candidate, or once for one candidate, etc. This method of voting would accomplish two things:  First, as previously stated, at large voting would eliminate the gerrymandered districts. Second, the cumulative voting feature would insure that no (well, almost no) minorities would be denied representation in Congress.  As little as 5% of the voters could insure their representation by casting all of their 20 votes for “their” candidate.  Best of all, it could be done WITHOUT amending the Constitution.

With respect to drastically increasing the number of congress critters to alleviate gerrymandering:  Do we really want the taxpayers (53% of the American people) to pay for the salaries, the staffs, the healthcare and the pensions of thousands of new federal “employees”? I think not.

And, with respect to another proposed alternative, direct Democracy via the Internet which, incidentally WOULD require amending the Constitution: While it is true that at any given moment in the day millions of American voters are already online, half of them are working and the other half are downloading porn.  Getting a Quorum for a vote might be difficult.

We have missed an opportunity to create a flood of brutal regime changing this time by not acting fast enough to let the Global public watch the benefit of forgiveness!

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Redistricting

Redistricting: How Powerful Interests Are Drawing You Out of a Vote

How secret money and power interests are drawing you out of a vote.

The Story So Far

Redistricting should be a way of ensuring your vote counts. If all districts have roughly the same number of people in them and are drawn to respect natural communities—neighborhoods where people share a heritage, work in the same industry, or just generally feel tied to their neighbors—voters have a chance to be represented by politicians who represent their areas’ collective interests.

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