Journalism in the Public Interest

Answering Your Questions on Our California Redistricting Story

We answer your questions about our California redistricting story.

Commissioner Dr. Gabino Aguirre, of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, right, responds to questions while discussing the commission's draft redistricting maps at a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., on June 10, 2011. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo)

Earlier this week, we reported on efforts by California’s Democratic congressional delegation to influence the state's redistricting commission. As we detailed, Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and others to testify in support of district lines that coincided with the party's interests. In one instance, party operatives invented a local group to advocate for a Democratic-friendly map.

Here are the most common questions about our reporting -- and answers. Feel free to ask additional questions in the comments section or email us directly.

If California Democrats actually succeeded in manipulating the redistricting commission, then why did some Democratic incumbents lose?

Our story did not assert that every Democrat got what they wanted from the Commission. Indeed, we noted that Democrats faced a particularly difficult challenge getting what they wanted in densely populated, ethnically diverse Southern California.

Still, fewer Democrats might have lost than it seems.

Some have argued, for instance, that the high-profile retirement of Rep. Lynn Woolsey, in Northern California, was a result of redistricting.

But as it turns out, Woolsey announced her retirement before the lines were completed, and has said redistricting had nothing to do with her decision.

What about Reps. Berman and Sherman getting drawn into a district together?

As many have noted, Democratic U.S. Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman were drawn into the same district, and as were Reps. Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson.

Several people -- including members of the redistricting commission -- have pointed to the Berman-Sherman face-off, in particular, as evidence that the commission was not manipulated by Democrats.

But even in that case, there appears to be evidence of an effort to influence the process.

According to FEC records, on May 23, Sherman's PAC paid $15,000, to an entity it called "PMPA" in their disclosures. The address of PMPA is the home of redistricting consultant Paul Mitchell's mother in Glendale. One of Paul Mitchell's firms is called Paul Mitchell Public Affairs, or PMPA. It's not clear what the work was for. Mitchell didn't respond to our request about his work about Sherman.

In the end, Sherman appears to have come out ahead. The so-called Berman-Sherman district was 60 percent from Sherman's old district, and 16 percent from Berman's district.

Sherman's office did not return our requests for comment.

As for Berman, he told ProPublica he didn't try to influence the commission: "I'm not unfamiliar with the redistricting process. I wasn't caught flat-footed. I just chose not to do what many on both sides of the aisle did: try to sway the commission to do something that was good for one member. The whole process was supposed to draw lines without consideration to incumbents. I respected that process."

Didn't Republicans and others try to influence the commission too?

Yes, they did. In fact, our reporting began with one such attempt. But we also found that Republicans were far less organized or effective than Democrats.

For instance, Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, tried to enlist his allies to urge the commission to draw him a friendly district. Last April, McKeon emailed a local trade group with defense industry tries encouraging them to "advocate to the Redistricting Commission" for McKeon's ideal district. (Read the email.) McKeon didn't return our requests for comment.

The group, the Antelope Valley Board of Trade, did not testify in favor of his district. McKeon ended up getting part of what he wanted but not all of it.

California is a blue state. In a fair process, shouldn't the Democrats "win" redistricting?

There haven't yet been elections based on the newly redistricted lines. So any projections about how Democrats and Republicans will fare are just that, projections.

We interviewed multiple experts who said that Democrats could be expected to gain a seat or two via redistricting. The previous district lines had actually been the result of a bi-partisan backroom gerrymander that created a few Republican seats. A fair redistricting process might have eliminated those safe seats.

But after the districts were drawn, internal Democratic Party analyses projected a gain of six or seven seats.

More importantly, the way lines are drawn doesn't just affect the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans. Particular lines can also protect particular politicians.

Rep. Judy Chu's Southern California district, for example, would likely remain safely Democratic in any redrawing. But, as our story shows, a group with ties to Rep. Chu successfully intervened in the commission process at the last minute to tweak lines that will likely make it easier for Chu herself to defeat any Democratic challenger.

That's particularly relevant because California is moving to a new "open primary" system where the politicians who get the largest number of votes go on to face each other in a second round -- regardless of party affiliation.

The Commission was never meant to be non-partisan.

We'll let readers judge for themselves. The voter referendum creating the commission called for "nonpartisan rules designed to ensure fair representation."

Here is the language voters saw in the ballot box:

The People of the State of California hereby make the following findings and declare their purpose in enacting this act is as follows:

(a) Under current law, California legislators draw their own political districts. Allowing politicians to draw their own districts is a serious conflict of interest that harms voters. That is why 99 percent of incumbent politicians were reelected in the districts they had drawn for themselves in the recent elections.

(b) Politicians draw districts that serve their interests, not those of our communities. For example, cities such as Long Beach, San Jose and Fresno are divided into multiple oddly shaped districts to protect incumbent legislators. Voters in many communities have no political voice because they have been split into as many as four different districts to protect incumbent legislators. We need reform to keep our communities together so everyone has representation.

(c) This reform will make the redistricting process open so it cannot be controlled by the party in power. It will give us an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on the commission, and will ensure full participation of independent voters—whose voices are completely shut out of the current process. In addition, this reform requires support from Democrats, Republicans, and independents for approval of new redistricting plans.

(d) The independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will draw districts based on strict, nonpartisan rules designed to ensure fair representation. The reform takes redistricting out of the partisan battles of the Legislature and guarantees redistricting will be debated in the open with public meetings, and all minutes will be posted publicly on the Internet. Every aspect of this process will be open to scrutiny by the public and the press.

(e) In the current process, politicians are choosing their voters instead of voters having a real choice. This reform will put the voters back in charge.

Why do you say the commission limited opportunities for public input? Didn't it have dozens of hearings?

The public hearing transcripts clearly show that a lot of testimony was received by the commission. But the commission cancelled a second round of draft maps and the hearings they said they would do with them. Many groups criticized this move as limiting citizen input.

Instead of releasing a promised second round of draft maps, the commission chose to release daily 'visualizations,' which were drawn at meetings in Sacramento. While the general public could comment via email, transcripts show individuals in attendance joined what became impromptu hearings at the beginning of each meeting. Transcripts show that these in-person comments and map submissions were influential. But they were only an option for those with the resources both to anticipate which districts would be discussed on a particular day, and appear in person in Sacramento.

Here is the commission's statement on our article.

Richard McDonough

Dec. 23, 2011, 8:34 p.m.

In short, the result is pretty much the reflection of the reality on the ground and your ass is out.

Dr. Michael Belzer

Dec. 24, 2011, 9:19 a.m.

Here is where you reveal your own biases even in your response article today:
“We interviewed multiple experts who said that Democrats could be expected to gain a seat or two via redistricting. The previous district lines had actually been the result of a bi-partisan backroom gerrymander that created a few Republican seats. A fair redistricting process might have eliminated those safe seats.

But after the districts were drawn, internal Democratic Party analyses projected a gain of six or seven seats.”

The process had been gerrymandered initially.  Even your article suggests that though some interference occurred, the difference between the Dems and Reps was that the former were somewhat more organized; you provide no analogous discussion of memos among the Republicans. The current mapping process appears to be a big improvement, though far from perfect.

To make this relevant and meaningful you need to compare with the drastic gerrymandering used elsewhere in the country.  I live in Michigan, which is a Blue State (at least arguably so, with two Democratic Senators), where Republicans and Democrats trade control of the Governorship, but where Republicans have overwhelming power in the state Senate and House because of ridiculous gerrymandering.  This is the much more common situation, in which you can see quite graphically the false promise of “democracy” as practiced on the ground in the United States.

And that doesn’t begin to address the anti-democratic notion of voting on workdays (never weekends, as in real democratic countries and countries trying to become democratic) in November or February or May or some other idiotic time of year.  And it doesn’t begin to address the registration and advance- or mail-voting processes that Republicans are trying hard to limit, or the poll taxes, that Republicans are trying to reintroduce.  And don’t forget that most transparently ridiculous institutions, the Electoral College, that totally distorts national campaigns.

So the story was interesting but completely missed the point.

I suspect the real motivation for this biased article and response is the authors fear that the California redistricting law will provide a model for other states. Can the authors provide even a single example of another state that carried out such a transparent and citizen run redistricting process?  It is clear that application of the California model across the remainder of the US would have a dramatic impact on national and local politics. What is needed now is for national organizations to begin the process of passing laws in each state that remove redistricting from political control.

Dr. Michael Belzer

Dec. 24, 2011, 1:35 p.m.

Craig Warden’s point is well taken, but it seems to me that if this is true, ProPublica ought to be concerned to present a clear, “fair and balanced” analysis (sorry, I couldn’t resist) so that the public can learn from the California experiment.  Again, it seems far more fair and transparent than the process I have seen in most other states, where the rigging is the only thing that’s transparent.  When we rig elections—and Americans have 200+ years of experience doing so—we delegitimize democracy.  That is a very dangerous fire with which to play during this demagogic era.

Christian Haesemeyer

Dec. 24, 2011, 7:24 p.m.

I see ProPublica are doubling down on their mistakes/lies (I don’t know which one, and it does not really matter). The fundamental issues remain unaddressed: ProPublica conflates correlation with causality, ProPublica do not understand - or pretend not to understand - what the goal and purview of the redistricting commission was, and under the guise of attacking partisan gerrymandering, ProPublica’s crucial complaint is that… new districts weren’t drawn in such a fashion that Republicans were guaranteed a minimum number of seats (a minimum number, moreover, wildly out of proportion with the small and shrinking Republican voter base in CA).

BRAVO!! ProPublica with this article I will now begin to pay more attention to your publications. For the people above to insinuate a slant is ridiculous. Read the rest of the stories on this website. If you find yourself clapping along and nodding your head, know that there are a good portion of readers feeling what you are feeling now.

When I read this article, to me the slant was you had moderate possibly liberal minded authors discovering a distasteful story and reporting it as truthfully as they could, even if they did not want to. That is good reporting. Report the results of the investigation.

Not the ‘Truth’. Not the slant. The results of the investigation.

And the Q and A here to further amplify the remarks is a great use of the web based model Pro Publica is developing.

To call this process slanted is silly and rings of partisanship itself.

Oh and Merry Christmas!

CD44 Correcton

Dec. 27, 2011, 5:07 p.m.

Just to CORRECT the record:

Reps Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson were not draw into the same District.

Congresswoman Janice Hahn is the only member of Congress that lives in the district.

Congresswoman Laura Richardson is CHOOSING to move into the District and challenge Congresswoman Janice Hahn.

So where is the follow up story about all the redistricting manipulated by Republicans across the country?

“Instead of releasing a promised second round of draft maps, the commission chose to release daily ‘visualizations,’ which were drawn at meetings in Sacramento. While the general public could comment via email, transcripts show individuals in attendance joined what became impromptu hearings at the beginning of each meeting. Transcripts show that these in-person comments and map submissions were influential. But they were only an option for those with the resources both to anticipate which districts would be discussed on a particular day, and appear in person in Sacramento.”
As a citizen who participated in the process, this statement above is the most accurate in terms of how regular citizens who did not have the resources (money to pay Paul Mitchell, as Sherman, VICA, MALDEF, and the African American Caucas did, among other special interest groups with VRA grants, or private PAC monies), really had no clout (limited to 2 minutes to present, or not allowed to present at all when big well-funded Paul Mitchell clients like VICA had secured 1.5 hours), with the commission at all. The VRA criteria citizens were all told would count as well as minority percentages:communities of interest, continuity, geography, we’re ALL discarded for one single criteria, minority percentages, so that the Commission, I believe, would be able to withstand VRA challenges by well-funded groups. Women State Legislators also lost big time in Southern California; the boys in Sacramento seemed to have it all figured out well before the hearings started. This is the only explanation I have been able to come up with for what was done to my Senator, Fran Pavley (a DEM rock star), and even to second-term incumbent Assemblymember Betsy Butler. Pavley got squeezed by the “boys”, lost 60% of her District, which now runs from Magic Mountain to Malibu, (lots of community of interest and geographic connectivity there, right?!), and must take on GOP incumbent Strickland to hold onto her seat. Both will have to raise millions of dollars for this race. My experience was the more you pointed out how well a District worked, especially if you were not a VRA defined minority, the more likely the Commission was to tear that District apart and cast citizen participants and their desires to the wolves. Sadly, this process did not get rid of gerrymandering; it just invented a new kind of gerrymandering.

Arizona Eagletarian

Jan. 1, 2012, Midnight

Whether or to what degree California’s Congressional delegation attempted or succeeded in subverting the independent redistricting process is probably still subject to debate. My hunch is that at least some of them tried.

Being able to rebut the reporting by ProPublica doesn’t necessarily prove to me that there was no effort by any of them.

Why do I say that? Because the evidence is clear that in Arizona, Republicans DID raise money, pursuant to waivers from Congressional Ethics committees and/or the FEC, to influence the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. And to do so without having to disclose the amounts and from whom they raised funds; or on what they expended said funds.

At minimum, several attorneys were hired to lobby the AIRC. Because they did not have to disclose, it’s likely they spent money on other, more clandestine activities.

Read the Arizona Eagletarian for more details.

Michael Schmidt

Jan. 4, 2012, 12:57 p.m.

I realize the need to be fair by noting that Republicans also tried to influence the process but they were less organized and effective.  However, this ignores a key point; Democrats engaged in deceit.  They subverted the will of the people, further eroded trust in the political, and made their selfish political fortunes paramount.  There is no reason to believe that people who act thusly would suddenly acquire honesty and integrity once elected to office.  A discouraging state of affairs.

Arizona Eagletarian

Jan. 4, 2012, 8 p.m.

I don’t think any proof that any California Democrats subverted the will of the people has been presented. However, proof that partisans acted like partisans is undeniable.

My point is that Arizona’s Republican Congressional delegation did essentially the same thing. Apparently, neither group violated any laws.

There is a significant gap in federal election law that allows secret meetings and undisclosed activities.

Short of changing laws, the best (and maybe ONLY) antidote is vigilence.

It may be tempting to get discouraged and it certainly is frustrating, but shine the light and call them out. Describe what happens but if they comply with the law, it won’t help to characterize them as evil and subverting the will of the people.

I’m bewildered by this story, with its subtitle “How Powerful Interests Are Drawing You Out of a Vote.” Do the authors or ProPublica really care about equal voter representation? As noted above, California has one of the cleanest procedures in the nation. Why didn’t you write about the dirty states, where voters truly suffer? Why didn’t you? This is a tale about a flyspeck when a garbage dump lies all around.

Michael Schmidt

Jan. 5, 2012, 2:03 p.m.

Arizona Eagletarian, I must disagree.  The story clearly indicates that California voters created a process that was intended to be independent of politicians, that was the will of the people.  Democrats admitted creating “communities of interest” based on their own self-interests, not the community’s (e.g., the Condor habitat).  They created phony advocacy groups to testify before the commission.  Clearly, these fraudulent efforts were meant to subvert the intent of the law.

robert von bargen

Jan. 5, 2012, 2:55 p.m.

Reading all the comments expressing shock that Pro Publica would dare to criticize Democrats,  I’m reminded of the problem comic Mort Sahl encountered after JFK was elected. 
Sahl had been the darling of the liberal Democratic wing with his devastating barbs about Ike and Nixon.  As a comic, he then began needling the folks in Camelot; they were in power and were fair game. Suddenly, Sahl became persona non grata on the left.  They had mistakenly thought they “owned” him and it really hurt his career when they deserted him.
You may have got some of this wrong, Pro Publica, but you’re “honest and unafraid” unlike the outfit that uses that slogan.

Interesting. And I’m reminded of a Senate whose minority votes in lockstep on almost every issue. This groupthink argument cuts both ways, and if it’s valid against the critics here, it’s valid against the commenders. But we do better without the mind-reading.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

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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