Journalism in the Public Interest

How Democrats Fooled California’s Redistricting Commission

To get the districts they wanted, Democrats organized groups that said they represented communities, but really represented the party.

(Wikimedia Commons)

This spring, a group of California Democrats gathered at a modern, airy office building just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The meeting was House members only — no aides allowed — and the mission was seemingly impossible.

In previous years, the party had used its perennial control of California’s state Legislature to draw district maps that protected Democratic incumbents. But in 2010, California voters put redistricting in the hands of a citizens’ commission where decisions would be guided by public testimony and open debate.

The question facing House Democrats as they met to contemplate the state’s new realities was delicate: How could they influence an avowedly nonpartisan process? Alexis Marks, a House aide who invited members to the meeting, warned the representatives that secrecy was paramount. “Never say anything AT ALL about redistricting — no speculation, no predictions, NOTHING,” Marks wrote in an email. “Anything can come back to haunt you.”

In the weeks that followed, party leaders came up with a plan. Working with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — a national arm of the party that provides money and support to Democratic candidates — members were told to begin “strategizing about potential future district lines," according to another email.

The citizens’ commission had pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players. To get around that, Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests.

When they appeared before the commission, those groups identified themselves as ordinary Californians and did not disclose their ties to the party. One woman who purported to represent the Asian community of the San Gabriel Valley was actually a lobbyist who grew up in rural Idaho, and lives in Sacramento.

In one instance, party operatives invented a local group to advocate for the Democrats’ map.

California’s Democratic representatives got much of what they wanted from the 2010 redistricting cycle, especially in the northern part of the state. “Every member of the Northern California Democratic Caucus has a ticket back to DC,” said one enthusiastic memo written as the process was winding down. “This is a huge accomplishment that should be celebrated by advocates throughout the region.”

Statewide, Democrats had been expected to gain at most a seat or two as a result of redistricting. But an internal party projection says that the Democrats will likely pick up six or seven seats in a state where the party’s voter registrations have grown only marginally.

“Very little of this is due to demographic shifts,” said Professor Doug Johnson, a fellow 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.”

As part of a national look at redistricting, ProPublica reconstructed the Democrats’ stealth success in California, drawing on internal memos, emails, interviews with participants and map analysis. What emerges is a portrait of skilled political professionals armed with modern mapping software and detailed voter information who managed to replicate the results of the smoked-filled rooms of old.

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

Democrats acknowledge that they faced a challenge in getting the districts they wanted in densely populated, ethnically diverse Southern California. The citizen commission initially proposed districts that would have endangered the political futures of several Democratic incumbents. Fighting back, some Democrats gathered in Washington and discussed alternatives. These sessions were sometimes heated.

“There was horse-trading throughout the process,” said one senior Democratic aide.

The revised districts were then presented to the commission by plausible-sounding witnesses who had personal ties to Democrats but did not disclose them.

Commissioners declined to discuss the details of specific districts, citing ongoing litigation. But several said in interviews that while they were aware of some attempts to mislead them, they felt they had defused the most egregious attempts.

“When you’ve got so many people reporting to you or making comments to you, some of them are going to be political shills,” said commissioner Stanley Forbes, a farmer and bookstore owner. “We just had to do the best we could in determining what was for real and what wasn’t.”

Democrats acknowledge the meetings described in the emails, but said the gatherings “centered on” informing members about the process. In a statement to ProPublica, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, head of California’s delegation, said that members, “as citizens of the state of California, were well within their rights to make comments and ensure that voices from communities of interest within their neighborhoods were heard by the Commission.”

“The final product voted on by the Commission was entirely out of the hands of the Members,” said Lofgren. “They, like any other Californian, were able to comment but had no control over the process.”

“At no time did the Delegation draw up a statewide map,” Lofgren said. (Read Lofgren’s full statement.)

California’s Republicans were hardly a factor. The national GOP stayed largely on the sidelines, and individual Republicans had limited success influencing the commission.

“Republicans didn’t really do anything,” said Johnson. “They were late to the party, and essentially non-entities in the redistricting process.”

Fed-up voters create a commission

The once-a-decade redistricting process is supposed to ensure that every citizen’s vote counts equally.

In reality, politicians and parties working to advance their own interests often draw lines that make an individual’s vote count less. They create districts dominated by one party or political viewpoint, protecting some candidates (typically incumbents) while dooming others. They can empower a community by grouping its voters in a single district, or disenfranchise it by zigging the lines just so.

Over the decades, few party bosses were better at protecting incumbents than California’s Democrats. No Democratic incumbent has lost a Congressional election in the nation’s most populous state since 2000.

As they drew the lines each decade, California’s party bosses worked in secret. But the oddly shaped districts that emerged from those sessions were visible for all to see. Bruce Cain, a legendary mapmaker who now heads the University of California’s Washington center, once drew an improbable-looking state assembly district that could not be traversed by car. (It crossed several impassable mountains.)

Cain proudly told the story of the district, which was set up for one of the governor’s friends. Cain said he justified the odd shape by saying it pulled together the state’s largest population of endangered condors. “It wasn’t legitimate on any level,” Cain recalled.

The 2010 ballot initiative giving the citizen commission authority over Congressional districts was sold to voters as a game changer. Not surprisingly, it was strenuously opposed by California’s Democrats, who continue to control the Statehouse.

No fewer than 35 Democratic politicians — including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — and their allies spent a total of $7 million to campaign against the proposition. The effort included mailings from faux community groups that derided the commission’s $1 million annual budget as “bureaucratic waste.” Despite this effort, Californians voted 61 percent to 39 percent to wrest federal redistricting from the hands of state lawmakers.

Immediately, Democrats began organizing to influence the citizen commission. There were numerous opportunities.

According to civics textbooks, the aim of redistricting is to group “communities of interest” so that residents in a city, neighborhood or ethnic group wield political power by voting together. The commission took an expansive view of this concept, ultimately defining a “community of interest” as anything from a neighborhood to workers on the same commute, or even areas sharing “intense beach recreation.”

This gave savvy players an opening to draw up maps that benefited one party or incumbent and then find — or concoct — “communities of interest” that justified them.

Democrats set out to do exactly that.

On March 16, members of the California delegation gathered at Democratic Party offices to discuss how to handle redistricting. They agreed that congressmen from the various regions of California — North, South and Central — would meet separately to “create a plan of action,” according to an email recounting the day’s events by Alexis Marks, the House aide. Among the first tasks, Marks wrote, was determining “how to best organize communities of interest.”

Democrats were already working “BEHIND THE SCENES” to “get info out” about candidates for the job of commission lawyer who were viewed as unfriendly. “I’ll keep you in the loop, but do not broadcast,” Marks wrote.

“The CA delegation has been broken down into regions that will be discussing redistricting at the member level,” read another party email from late March. “Members will be asked to present ideas on both issues” — communities of interest and district lines — “and will be asked to come to some consensus about how to adopt a regional strategy for redistricting.”

Over the next several weeks, California Democrats huddled with Mark Gersh, the party’s top mapmaking guru. Officially, Gersh works with the Foundation for the Future, a nonprofit whose declared goal is “to help Democrats get organized for the fight of the decade; the fight that will determine Democratic fortunes in your state and in Washington, D.C. for years to come: Redistricting!”

The foundation is well funded for this fight. Its supporters include longtime supporters of the Democratic Party: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as well as the American Association for Justice (previously known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America). The foundation was launched in 2006 when Nancy Pelosi’s office worked with both groups to start it.

Neither Gersh nor participants would describe in detail what was discussed at the meetings. But from Marks’ emails and other sources, it is clear that California’s Democrats sat down together to discuss mutually agreeable districts that would protect incumbents.

The value of coordinating efforts to influence the commission cannot be overstated. If each Democrat battled separately for the best district, it was likely that one Congress member’s gain would harm countless colleagues. Creating Congressional districts is a lot like a Rubik’s cube: Each change reshapes the entire puzzle. The Democrats’ plan was to deliver synchronized testimony that would herd the commission toward the desired outcomes. If it worked perfectly, the commissioners might not even know they had been influenced.

Over the summer, Marks sent out more than 100 emails about redistricting, according to multiple recipients of the messages. According to House records, Marks earned $112,537 in 2010 in her post as deputy director of the California Democratic delegation. That makes her a federal employee. But although many of the messages were sent during the work day, a spokesman insisted Marks did so in her after-hours role as a political staffer for Democrats. They were sent from a Gmail account. Lofgren's office did not make Marks available for comment, citing policy that staffers do not speak on the record. Instead, they pointed to Rep. Lofgren's statement.

Federal employees are not allowed to do campaign work on government time, or use government resources, according to House ethics rules.

The emails alerted staff and legislators when the commission was scheduled to discuss their districts and they encouraged them to have allies testify to “community of interest” lines that supported their maps.

Marks told members they would be asked to raise money for a legal challenge if things didn’t work out. The delegation, she said, was working with Marc Elias, who heads an organization called the National Democratic Redistricting Trust. (The trust shares a website with The Foundation for The Future.)

Last year the trust persuaded the Federal Election Commission to allow members to raise money for redistricting lawsuits without disclosing how the money was spent, how much was raised, and who had given it.

The commission blinds itself

Back in California, the commission was getting organized. Its first task was to pick commissioners. The ballot initiative excluded virtually anyone who had any previous political experience. Run for office? Worked as a staffer or consultant to a political campaign? Given more than $2,000 to a candidate in any year? “Cohabitated” for more than 30 days in the past year with anyone in the previous categories? You’re barred.

More than 36,000 people applied. The state auditor’s office winnowed the applicants to a group of 60 finalists. Each party was allowed to strike 12 applicants without explanation. Then, the state used Bingo-style bouncing balls in a cage to pick eight commissioners — three Republicans, three Democrats and two people whose registration read “decline to state” (California-speak for independent). The randomly selected commissioners then chose six from the remaining finalists to complete the panel.

The result was a commission that included, among others, a farmer, a homemaker, a sports doctor and an architect. Previous redistrictings had been executed by political pros with intimate knowledge of California’s sprawling political geography. The commissioners had little of that expertise — and one of their first acts was to deprive themselves of the data that might have helped them spot partisan manipulation.

The law creating the commission barred it from considering incumbents’ addresses, and instructed it not to draw districts for partisan reasons.

The commissioners decided to go further, agreeing not to even look at data that would tell them how prospective maps affected the fortunes of Democrats or Republicans. This left the commissioners effectively blind to the sort of influence the Democrats were planning.

One of the mapping consultants working for the commission warned that it would be difficult to competently draft district lines without party data. She was overruled.

The lack of political data was “liberating,” said Forbes, the commissioner. “We had no one to please except ourselves, based on our best judgment.”

“I think,” he said, “we did a pretty good job.”

The commission’s judgments on how to draw lines, Forbes and others said, was based on the testimony from citizens about communities of interest.

“We were provided quite a number of maps from various organizations,” said another commissioner, attorney Jodie Filkins-Webber. If the groups were basing their maps on political data to favor one party, “they certainly did not tell us that.”

“Districts could have been drawn based on voter registration,” Filkins-Webber said, “but we would never have known it.”

The commission received a torrent of advice — a total of 30,000 separate pieces of testimony and documents. Records suggest the commission never developed an effective method for organizing it all. The testimony was kept in a jumble of handwritten notes and computer files. The commissioners were often left to recall testimony by memory.

The difficulties in digesting and weighing the reams of often-conflicting testimony enhanced the value of people or groups who came bearing draft maps.

“Other people offered testimony; we offered solutions,” said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, a powerful business group outside Los Angeles that persuaded the commission to adopt its Congressional map for the San Fernando Valley.

How Democrats locked down Northern California

Redistricting is a chess game for people with superb spatial perception. Sometimes, anchoring a single line on a map can make everything fall into place.

According to an internal memo, Democrats recognized early on that they could protect nearly every incumbent in Northern California if they won a few key battles. First, they had to make sure no district crossed the Golden Gate Bridge.Then, they had to draw a new seat that pulled sufficient numbers of Democrats from Contra Costa County into a district that included Republicans from the San Joaquin Valley.

The man with the most to lose was Rep. Jerry McNerney, who represented an octopus-shaped district that had scooped in Democrats from the areas east of San Francisco. McNerney’s prospects seemed particularly dismal. Early in the year, he made The Washington Post’s national list of top 10 likely redistricting victims.

Republicans moved first, attempting to create a district that would keep San Joaquin County whole and pick up conservative territory to the south. But then a previously unknown group calling itself OneSanJoaquin entered the fray.

OneSanJoaquin described itself as a nonprofit, but records show it is not registered as such in any state. It has no identifiable leadership but it does have a Facebook page, called OneSanJoaquin, created by the Google account OneSanJoaquin.

The page was posted in early April, just as the commission began taking testimony. Its entries urged county residents to download maps and deliver pre-packaged testimony.

On the surface, the OneSanJoaquin page seemed to be serving Republicans’ interests. But Democrats were one move ahead and understood that a united valley would inevitably lead to a Democratic-leaning district. (Republicans apparently did not understand that federal voting rights requirements ruled out their proposed district, since it would have interfered with the Latino district to the south. That misconception was encouraged by the maps on the OneSanJoaquin page, which were drawn to make this look possible.)

In fact, the only way to make a district with “one San Joaquin” was to pull in the Democrats in eastern Contra Costa — the far reaches of San Francisco’s Bay-area liberals.

The author of OneSanJoaquin’s maps was not identified on the Facebook page, but ProPublica has learned it was Paul Mitchell, a redistricting consultant hired by McNerney.

Transcripts show that more than a dozen people delivered or sent the canned testimony to the commission, which accepted it without question. There’s no sign that commissioners were aware some of the letters had been downloaded from the mysterious OneSanJoaquin page.

After the commission finished, McNerney announced he was moving to the newly created San Joaquin district to run for re-election. It was a huge improvement for him. In 2010, he barely won his district, beating his opponent by just one point. If the 2010 election were re-run in his new district, he would have won by seven points, according to the Democrats’ internal analysis. (McNerney’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)

Summing up the story, an internal Democratic memo said the GOP had been decisively out-maneuvered “Their hope was to create a Republican Congressional seat,” the memo said. “Their plan backfired.”

“McNerney ends up with safer district than before,” Mitchell’s firm tweeted, after McNerney announced his candidacy in his new district. “Wow! How did he do that?”

An under-funded commission

While players attempting to influence the process were well funded, the commission struggled with a lack of time and money. They responded, in part, by reducing citizens’ opportunities for input.

The budget for the whole map drawing undertaking was just over $1 million. At first, the commission had its public hearings transcribed — then the money ran out and they stopped.

The commissioners received $300 per day as compensation and were eligible for reimbursement of travel and out of pocket expenses. Most kept their day jobs at the same time they tried to juggle their roles as commissioners.

It was a grueling schedule, with 35 public hearings taking place over just three months. “I had three days off between” April and August, said Commissioner Filkins-Webber, who maintained her legal practice while serving. “I was working basically on average18 hours a day.”

The commissioners also had to deal with public anger. The Tea Party in California decided to use the hearings as a forum to protest the Voting Rights Act, for instance, and at one hearing got so rowdy that police intervened.

Experts hired by the commission to actually draw the maps were also overworked and underpaid. Half a dozen times the meeting transcripts contain references to map drawers working overnight to prepare maps.

Overwhelmed by the task at hand, the commission decided to essentially shut down public participation halfway through the process. After the first round of drafts, which were widely criticized and abandoned, the commission stopped releasing formal drafts. More importantly, commissioners stopped holding hearings, which meant the next draft was prepared without public input.

The commission moved its meetings to Sacramento, not far from where party bosses had once gathered in secret to set the lines. The commission’s meetings were webcast to the public. But only those with the resources and time could participate.

“You have to ask yourself, who has the money to send people up to Sacramento like that,” said Eugene Lee, voting rights project director at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which was active in organizing grassroots participation in the redistricting process.

“We didn’t have the money to do that. No way.”

The commission released no further drafts. In July, it made public a “draft final.” Voters had two weeks to submit comments before it became final. Most of those comments came from insiders who had been closely watching the Sacramento meetings.

Southern California Democrats also win

For those who could stay engaged, the Sacramento phase of the commission’s work proved rewarding. One politician who benefited was Southern California Congresswoman Judy Chu.

When it appeared that Chu would get an unfavorable district late in the game, a group with ties to the congresswoman went before the commission in Sacramento and convinced the commissioners to draw a favorable map that included her political stronghold, a town called Rosemead. Chu enjoyed broad support in Rosemead, where she was first elected to the school board in 1992 and later served in the state assembly.

The group, which called itself the Asian American Education Institute, worked with Paul Mitchell, the same consultant who helped engineer the triumph of Northern California Democrats.

Records show that crucial last-minute testimony in favor of Chu’s district was delivered by Jennifer Wada, who told commissioners she was representing the institute and the overall Asian-American community. Wada did not mention that she lives and works as a registered lobbyist in Sacramento, 400 miles from the district, or that she grew up in rural Idaho, where most of her family still lives. Wada says she was hired by the institute to “convey their concerns about Asian and Pacific Islander representation” to the commission.

The second witness was Chris Chaffee, who said he was a consultant for the institute and an employee of Redistricting Partners, Mitchell’s firm.

Commissioners accepted this map without asking a basic question: Who, exactly, was the Asian American Education Institute representing?

The group’s tax records show it had no full-time employees. Its website is barebones, and clicking on the “get active” button on the home page leads nowhere, simply returning users to the home page.

There’s another interesting feature of the Web site: the domain name is registered to a man named Bill Wong, a political consultant who has worked on multiple Chu campaigns, as well as her husband’s successful bid for Judy Chu’s old state assembly seat. Chu paid Wong $5,725 for consulting work in 2010, FEC records show. Her husband, Mike Eng, donated $4,500 to the Asian American Education Institute in 2010 and 2011.

The institute, said Wong, “argued to keep communities of interest together. Since Rep. Chu has been a strong advocate for Asian communities, it would make sense for her to represent them.” Wong added that he “discussed redistricting with a number of Asian-American legislators.”

An email obtained by ProPublica shows Amelia Wang, Chu’s chief of staff, telling Chu and Bill Wong about testimony submitted by another Asian group, Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans for Fair Redistricting, which also intervened at the last minute to offer similar maps. In case that didn’t do the trick, Mitchell himself went before the commission, urging the commissioners to accept the maps submitted by the institute (his employer) and the coalition.

And that’s what the commission did, incorporating proposed lines for both groups and drawing a map that included Rosemead in Chu’s new district.

Wang told ProPublica that Chu’s office and the institute “did communicate about keeping communities of interest together, including Rosemead. However, Rep. Chu did not hire Bill Wong for redistricting or to testify on her behalf before the commission.”

“Rep. Chu has represented a united Rosemead city since 2001,” said Wang, “it would have been a tragic mistake to divide it.”

Though the process turned out well for Chu, it didn’t work out so well for the town of South El Monte.

To make room for Rosemead in Chu’s district, South El Monte — 85 percent Latino — got bumped into another district across the mountains that is much less Latino, and much more affluent.

The town’s mayor, Luis Aguinaga, say the new lines “don’t make sense.” South El Monte is now split off from sister communities in the San Gabriel Valley — including North El Monte and El Monte.

“We’re always on the same side, always fighting for the same issues,” Aguinaga said. “On this side of the San Gabriel Valley we have a voice. If we’re apart it will be much harder to be heard.”

Other communities lost, too.

Outside Los Angeles, residents of what’s known as Little Saigon begged the commission to undo what they saw as decades of discrimination and put the U.S.’s largest Vietnamese community together in one district. Instead, the community was split in two — a result of testimony by supporters of Rep. Loretta Sanchez, including a former staffer and one of her wedding guests, to get her a safe district. A large section of Little Saigon ended up in a district with Long Beach, a town that is 1 percent Vietnamese.

“Residents who live in Little Saigon share the same needs, but if they’re in two different districts they may not be represented,” said Tri Ta, a City Council member from the area.

“This district is characterized by the Port of Long Beach,” the commission writes in its final report, “one of the world’s busiest seaports and the area’s largest employer.”

“It does not make sense to put the area known as Little Saigon in a district with Long Beach,” Ta said. “The two areas are distinctively different.”

"Congresswoman Sanchez believed strongly throughout the redistricting process that the population growth of the Latino community should be accurately reflected in the newly drawn congressional districts," said Adrienne Elrod, Sanchez's Chief of Staff, in a statement, "She's glad that members of the Orange County community shared her views, and as a result, was pleased to see them take an active role."

Paul Mitchell, the consultant whose work had such a large impact on the commission’s decisions, said voters benefited from the work done by him and others deeply involved in the process. The commissioners, he said, “knew some of the testimony was being fabricated by outside groups. But what were they to do? They couldn’t create a screen of all testimony and ferret out all the biases.”

The work he did on behalf of his diverse group of clients, he said, “created better maps — regardless of if they came with the additional benefit of helping some local city, union, or incumbent that was the client,” Mitchell said.

“My only regret is that we didn't do more.”

Corrections: This story originally stated that the Asian population of Long Beach was less than 1 percent. It has been corrected to say that the Vietnamese population of Long Beach is 1 percent. The story also previously stated that Rep. Judy Chu previously served as a state senator. In fact, she served in the state assembly. This story originally stated the commission worked for free, with a small stipend for expenses. It has been corrected to say, the commissioners received $300 per day as compensation and were eligible for reimbursement of travel and out of pocket expenses. This story incorrectly described Doug Johnson as a professor at Claremont McKenna's Rose Institute. In fact, he is a fellow at the Institute.

As a lifelong Democrat, I despise the underhanded tactics politicians of both parties use. I watched Republicans use redistricting to swing Texas to the Republican side a few years ago. We need a truly non-partisan agency to take charge of this duty. Better still, let’s eliminate the Electoral College and elect our politicians by popular vote. Let’s give everyone an equal input on who leads us. No more strategic nonsense to buy an election by targeting just a few states. Why should Iowa and the other early Republican primary states dictate who becomes the most powerful citizen in the World? It makes no sense. Iowa, for example, is not even close to being representative of our country.

sick system, sick country ...

Richard Raznikov

Dec. 21, 2011, 4:29 p.m.

“I’m shocked!  Shocked that gambling is going on at Rick’s!”  Folks, get serious.  Maneuverings over redistricting has been going on since before my first days in the California Democratic Council in the early ‘60s, with the Burton brothers.  Both parties do it if they can.  Generally, both parties often work together to shield incumbents of each party –– though maybe not so much anymore. 
The notion of a ‘citizens’ committee’ or ‘non-partisan’ commission is and always will be a distraction and a waste of time. 
Personally, I’m glad the Democrats pulled it off in California.  It’s one of the few things these bozos have gotten right in the last ten years.

In the end, no laws were broken. It’s pretty naive to think that both parties would not try to influence the outcome. In CA, Dems rule so they end up with more influence.

Why am I not surprised at the Democrats’ tactics here?  They cry foul at every opportunity except when they’re not following the rules, eg. the presidential election and “community activist” voter signups. Why does Washington State have a democratic governor?  The voters clearly elected a Republican, but dems insisted votes had been “missed” and held vote recounts until they got the results they wanted.

I hope the voters of California become aware of what happened and undo the redistricting lines.

OK, so I’m shamed by the above comments that I am shocked by the behind the scenes manipulation.  When the commission came out with the new district lines I believed that they were fair.  And when other states like Texas were shown to be engaging in outrageous gerrymandering I thought that we were better here in CA.  Guess it wasn’t so.  Disappointed.

I do hope ProPublica watches the redistricting efforts underway elsewhere in the nation that are under the control of Republicans at least as carefully.

For instance, in Wisconsin where their Republicans have had to be taken to court in order to provide the public with any information about the ways in which their voting rights are being constrained and diluted?

Or a little something about the SCOTUS blocking a three-judge panel’s attempt at righting the wrongs inflicted upon the citizens of Texas by the Republicans through redistricting?

You see, the American right is so very corrupt that they have to seize any opportunity to bring any act on the part of the Democrats that approximates normal Republican behavior to the attention of the American people lest their own far more numerous examples finally overwhelm the right’s ability to practice “Divide, and conquer.”. 

Hence, for example, the new Republican effort to “investigate” high speed rail in California.  Given the amount of electoral votes California represents, of course you can understand why the Republicans would try any tactic in an effort to swing that state Republican. 

(And no, I’m not trying to infer that this article is such an effort.  But how did ProPublica come by those emails of Marks’, anyway - assuming they are indeed from Marks?  I do hope a rudimentary attempt was made to ensure that they weren’t spoofed as to point of origination; email headers are so very easy to manipulate that I am sure any credible journalist immediately ruled that possibility out.  Particularly as the believability of accusations and innuendo contained within this story hinges upon them.)

One of the things that theoretically makes the USA a strong nation is our diversity. Plans that segregate and separate us into silos ultimately weaken us and make us more intolerant of each other. Read Bill Bishop’s book “The Big Sort.” No wonder we have gridlock at all levels of government. Every representative is steadfastly defending the position of their narrow, isolated and inflexible group with little or no thought of the greater community. My way or the highway, no compromise! Shame on the people who worked in secret and used devious methods to promote their own selfish interests over the needs and good of ALL the people they are supposed to represent. Shame on the people who were supposed to protect the rights of all of the voters. No wonder our country is in decline!

robert von bargen

Dec. 21, 2011, 5:17 p.m.

While I’m embarrassed and ashamed at what this story reveals, I’m going to nitpick one issue. 
In the portion describing the Loretta Sanchez district, the authors state: “A large section of Little Saigon ended up in a district with Long Beach, a town that is less than 1 percent Asian.”

In fact, the Asian population of Long Beach is over 12%.  True, the Vietnamese population is listed as only 1.1%, but that is suspect. I believe, based on having worked in the city and on my CSULB graduate daughter having lived there for many years, that the Vietnamese/Cambodian population may be much larger.

I find it interesting that - of all of the redistricting tales available for recounting to the public - the collection at

features California five times

If that were not true - if the focus were not so selective all the way down to retelling California’s from a variety of angles - then Republican corruption would dominate this “investigative effort”.

Even down to the headlines.

robert von bargen

Dec. 21, 2011, 5:24 p.m.

I think what needs to be kept in mind, ibsteve, is that you and I probably never read anything at all about this story until P/P did the investigation and report.  On the other hand, some of the stories in the other states have been developing over a longer period of time and have been covered in much of the media.  No sense in asking P/P to pile on to a story with legs.  (I’m a Liberal Democrat, but I’d like to think we kept the state Blue on the square.)

Herbert A. Sample

Dec. 21, 2011, 5:33 p.m.

Interesting article. But I have to wonder why it did not mention that the commission’s final map resulted in two sets of two Democrats running against each other in the L.A. area: Brad Sherman vs. Howard Berman, and Janice Hahn vs. Laura Richardson. (There are some incumbent Republicans battling each other too.) And is it that big a surprise that Northern CA Democrats came away pretty happy? (Except for McNerney’s district, much of urban Northern CA is Democratic territory, and has been for years and years.)

Or, why the article didn’t mention that while there may be larger populations in “Republican areas,” GOP registration has fallen statewide over the last 10 years.

While what various Democratic aides, members and groups did appears on its face to be sneaky, it was up to the commission to ask hard questions of each person or entity who testified or submitted maps. That it didn’t should lead to improvements in the process 10 years hence.

Jesus DeMexico

Dec. 21, 2011, 5:43 p.m.

Actually, El Monte, North El Monte, and South El Monte are all in separate districts now. (27th, 38th, and another one)

How about the scientific method? The scientific method is a mechanism for inhibiting bias, so why not use it for redistricting?

Write a survey with one question: “When it comes to the things that the elected official will control, what issues matter to you?” Present that survey to a random sample of registered voters in the state. Throw out any results that don’t meet the criterion. Gather the rest into a weighted list of issues.

Now write a second survey that asks how people feel about those issues. Present that survey to another random sample of registered voters in the state.

Use the results and the weights for the issues as the input to an algorithm that draws district lines based upon minimizing differences in opinion on those issues.

My only concern is whether you can do that on just a $1 budget.

Err, I mean a $1M budget, of course.

The Commission should have started from the obvious premise that because Democrats are not adding registrations and Republicans are, that the Democrat Party should not be entitled to any extra seats. Instead, they were played like a pipe organ by Dem pols.

[And IANAR. R=Republican; I are not.]

Based on the voter fraud conducted here and in the past, 99% by the Democrats, we can expect immense, widespread and flagrant cheating at the polls in November. Count on it. ACORN is still operative, despite its routine felonies and being caught repeatedly on-camera selling votes for money.

Meh.  The scientific method is not completely free of social and cultural biases, either.

I say good on the California Dems for pulling this off, the Republicans have had a strangle-hold on dirty politics for way too long now and it’s way past time for the Dems to show some game and do it better.

This is very disappointing. A certain amount of political gamesmanship on both sides is to be expected, but this is outright deception. I had hoped that the California Democrats would be above this. Unfortunately, this has become a vicious circle. Republicans Gerrymander Texas so Democrats Gerrymander California.

robert von bargen: Thanks we fixed that in the story.

How can the authors reasonably justify the snarky comment “But as ProPublica’s review makes clear, Democratic incumbents once again are insulated from the will of the electorate”?

The electorate voted to take Congressional line drawing away from the State Legislature.  That happened.  State Assemblymembers and State Senators were not involved with Congressional boundary discussions.

The electorate did not state a priority to prioritize creation of as many competitive seats as possible, without regard to communities of interest.  Dems far outnumber Republicans in California.  What pro-Republican partisan agenda does ProPublica want to implement?

Two pairs of incumbent House Democrats will run against each other in Southern California, guaranteeing more Democratic incumbent defeats than in any cycle in decades.  Did ProPublica want to split San Francisco in four so it could draw a ribbon to the Oregon/Nevada corner in Modoc County in hopes of reducing Leader Pelosi’s base?  The statewide election of 2010 resulted in a Democratic sweep - with no boundaries about which to protest.

The probable reduction in Republican Congressmembers from California well represents the state’s voter registration changes since 2000.  And most municipalities have been kept whole for this round of redistricting.

All you have to know about politics is its true meaning.  Poli = many; tics = blood sucking creatures.

@Themistocles:  Since you claim that “The Commission should have started from the obvious premise that because Democrats are not adding registrations and Republicans are, that the Democrat Party should not be entitled to any extra seats. Instead, they were played like a pipe organ by Dem pols.”

I thought I would give the readers of this article the opportunity to see if they can discern the trend you declare in the data itself:

This story shows a surprising lack of historical perspective. The history that is neglected is not even that old. Remembering the genesis of your investigative news service, I thought your editors if not your reporters would do better than this.  Here’s what is left out:  The ballot measure that set up this redistricting process was backed by business and non-partisan groups like Common Cause. Where is this noted.  One of the more influential commissioners – based on his performance on task – was Vince Barabba, a Republican who was the director of the U.S. Census under Reagan. He’s a polling expert and a genius with numbers. It’s difficult to believe that he was duped by a secretive partisan political effort.  In the San Luis Obispo hearing I attended, obvious Republicans and Tea Party members were just as dedicated to seeking districts that might favor their causes. In any event, the commission followed the rules for redistricting that were laid down in the ballot measures which created it.  There may be no perfectly nonpartisan way to redistrict legislative boundaries but my betting is that this measure, combined with the open primary, will result in a much more functional state Legislature.  Ten years ago, Burton and his Democratic buddies gave away Democratic congressional seats in a deal aimed at controlling the state Legislature over the last decade . It proved to be a foolish bargain.  This effort was an honest one designed to set some important rules giving more voters a voice in choosing their local representative.  If the end result isn’t perfect, in politics what is?

Walter Hawkins

Dec. 21, 2011, 6:52 p.m.

The public policy implications resulting from the voters of California creating a Commission to draw districts was very clear after the initiatives passed. First, it was very clear that the redistricting rules had changed. Second, new strategies needed to be made by all political parties if they wanted to have a successful outcome. Finally, any politically astute Californian recognized that the demographics and residential housing patterns of the state favored Democrats.

Even if the concept of “communities of interest” was not in the initiative, unbiased mappers drawing maps based on population concentrations could not helped the Republican cause.  The deck was not stacked by Democrats. Republicans just did not work hard enough to organize their base or the grass root independent vote.

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

Dec. 21, 2011, 6:56 p.m.

I am extremely gratified that Propublica has seen fit to expose Democrati gerrymandering efforts in the Peoples Republik of Kalifornia. Frankly, I did not think I would live to see the day.

The redistricting commission members should take umbrage at the slant of this article, which paints them as inartful bumblers manipulated by big time political slickers.  The better story line, as observers and participants in the redistricting wars know, is that the redistricting commission, the requirement that the commission draw the congressional maps, as well as the state legislative and BOE maps, and the current lawsuits attempting to overthrow the commission’s state senate maps, are all a result of the california republican party’s desperate efforts to forstall their inevitable eclipse as a viable political force in California. The efforts of the Democrats described in this slanted story, which reads like a bad pulp fiction novel, should be no surprise to anyone. To the extent any of these events actually occurred they should be viewed as part of the continuing struggle between two ideological camps that make the commission just a pawn in the battle. The commissioners did great work, given the enormity of the task they were handed and the very limited resources they were given.


Dec. 21, 2011, 7:24 p.m.

Wow. Anyone who thinks redistricting could EVER be non-partisan is living in a fantasy. People and computers can be manipulated - especially when dumbed-down Americans think inexperienced people are the ones to elect. When politicians are inexperienced, and especially if they are just naturally not-that-smart, they will easily be manipulated by smarter people America should wake up and stop being so anti-intellectual! The smart people know exactly how to take advantage of THAT stupid “value”. Smart people should battle with smart people, not dummies. If the stakes weren’t so high - it wouldn’t be much fun for the smart people! If you want morality, elect a LEADER who is moral, but the rest are all corruptible. If you get real lucky, you might find an executive that is not corrupt. But if they aren’t experienced - they won’t be able to withstand the barrage of corruption that falls on their heads. No way.

Let the Bull Crap Begin. Full of holes aerate from Cow Dung in this article

Randy, I agree that the scientific method isn’t perfect. Nothing in the real world is. But it’s far less prone to gaming and external bias than what we had before, or what we have now. It’s the least flawed of an infinite variety of flawed options.

Uh…this is pretty “dog bites man.”  I read nothing here that suggested any of this was illegal.  Newsflash: California is a blue state.  Dems outnumber Reeps in registration by significant numbers.  The only reason many Reep seats survived redistricting is because of gerrymandering in the past.  ANY redistricting would likely have had these political outcomes and ANY redistricting was going to split some community somewhere.  The Reep Party ENDORSED the Citizens Commission initiative.  They need to live with the result.

I was a registered republican until about 6 years ago.  Much to my surprise, I received several e-mail contacts from a very staunch republican asking me to attend redistricting meetings and support his proposals.  I’m sure both parties tried to influence the outcome. 

I don’t think there is an easy solution to the dilemma.

Ventura Capitalist

Dec. 21, 2011, 9:29 p.m.

California: Home of the Culture of Corruption.
This fish stinks from the head: President Solyndra.

There are professional specialists in redistricting who use all kinds of “scientific methods” to accomplish redistricting.  Curiously, they’re apparently partisan.  Magellan Strategies, for example, seems to specialize in assisting only the Republican Party:

Given that particular web page was written in anticipation of redistricting efforts in 2011, they may be a little too busy to accept new clients even if you are Republican.  Even if, in fact, you are a Republican who doesn’t come with their typical abhorrence of science and its…over-reliance…upon facts. 

(Although to overload the sarcasm a trifle, these days there is science…and then there is goal-oriented science.  lollll…and no, I don’t mean “R&D”.)

This reeks of a sleazy, hyper-partisan screed that one would expect of the likes of Glenn Beck.

First, if you have a coin toss and one group is screaming “heads, heads, heads” and another is screaming “tails, tails, tails”, and the coin comes up heads, the story is NOT that the first group fooled the coin into coming up heads. The basic premise of the article is that the number of safe districts was the result of the Commission being manipulated. However, the results are in line with what was widely predicted before the Commission began its work: Party registration is so concentrated and segregated by region that it was widely regarded by the experts of both parties to be impossible to not create many safe seats for both parties without resorting to extreme Gerrymandering.

Second, nothing the “reporters” describe the Democrats doing was unexpected, nor anything that the Republicans couldn’t do equally well or better. But the screed makes only one fleeting mention of that.

Third, the “reporters” get basic facts wrong. For example, in the first paragraph of the section “The commission blinds itself” they state “The ballot initiative excluded virtually anyone who had any previous political experience….” but follow the link and you will find NONE of the claimed exclusions.

Fourth, the first “evidence” that Democrats succeeded in manipulating the Commission was that they got the Golden Gate Bridge as a dividing line. The bridge is such a natural and obvious dividing line, I would have been amazed if any impartial group had not used it.

The second piece of purported evidence was that one particular county line had particular significance, although there is no explanation of what that might be. I have driven across that line many times, and I haven’t noticed any distinction.

Much of the remaining purported evidence seems nothing more than confirmation bias. We are told that keeping a ethnic group in one district is favorable to the Democratic incumbent only to be whipsawed by the claim that splitting a different ethnic group is favorable to another.  There are two basic schools of thought on this: (1) The ethnic group benefits by being concentrated in a single district because that representative will give them high priority vs (2) Having the group spread over multiple districts results in multiple representatives having to pay attention to, and advocate for, them. In different circumstances, both have their merits.

Someone should write story about the gerrymandering that the Republicans pulled off in North Carolina, where there’s hardly a whimper from the Democrats or the citizens about the weird shapes of the districts. Wherever possible, the dems will be running against each other in the primaries and the Republicans will run against, not each other in the primaries, but the dems who survive the primaries.
The genius running our state is only about 8 years past his residence in Fairfax, Virginia, and I seem to be the only citizen who wonders just how close he was to the C Street, Arlington, bunch that Jeff Sharlett has written about. The Repubs are taking over this country and I wish it had not taken so long for the young people to get the drift and start the fight against the takeover. If I were younger, I’d be occupying and calling for mic checks. This nation is in peril and only an active citizenry that won’t be shut down has a chance to stop the betrayal.

Pro RePublica-ns

Dec. 22, 2011, 12:10 a.m.

“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.”

Quoting a partisan RePublican must be fun, especially when he neglects to disclose that (1) the percentage of voters registered as Republicans has dropped significantly since the last round of redistricting 10 years ago and (2) those “Republican” areas have been voting increasingly Democratic.  After all, the “octopus-shaped district” in which McNerney was elected was gerrymandered to…wait, elect Republican Dick Pombo!  Oh no, an octopus gerrymander was replaced by keeping San Joaquin County whole: must be some underhanded Democratic plot!!!

If anyone wants to learn what Paul Mitchell, the consultant that these authors claimed was the mastermind of eliminating that gerrymander, actually said during the redistricting process, his blog is publicly available at

Jennifer Poole

Dec. 22, 2011, 12:18 a.m.

The idea that it’s gerrymandering that makes Northern California majority Democratic, that the party had to interfere with the redistricting commission to “lock down” NorCal for the Democrats, is kind of foolish. As is the idea that not “crossing the Golden Gate Bridge” can only be attributed to some brainwashing by the Democratic Party. Talk about a natural barrier for a political district? I was at the Santa Rosa hearing of the Redistricting Commission, and I heard a lot of opposition to the concept of “crossing the Golden Gate Bridge,” and no way were they all Democratic Party “shills.”

This article is not easy to read and doesn’t seem to explain some key points or present evidence for some conclusions. Needs some serious editing.

In light of this story of manipulation and astroturfing, I’m going to safely assume every comment in this thread that apologizes for the Democrats is from an intern at a K-Street lobbyist given instructions to flood the comments section.

lolll..made me laugh, Auric.

But I warn you:  You’re furthering the stereotype that members of the right’s base will always choose to reject reality rather than accept the possibility that they can’t have it their way.

@ibsteve2u - If crap lands on my car window, it’s reasonable to assume a bird just flew overhead. There are other possibilities, of course, but - in absence of further investigation - it’s entirely reasonable for me to assume a bird flew overhead.

If a story about astroturfing produces comments decidedly out of sync with those in parallel reports on the same story (as this has), it’s reasonable for me to assume the comments themselves have been astroturfed by the subject of the report. There are a thousand other possibilities but - for informal, discussion purposes - this is an entirely reasonable conclusion to reach.

BTW - I’m a card-carrying Green.

Also, this - “will always choose to reject reality rather than accept the possibility that they can’t have it their way” - is a nonsensical sentence.

Is it reasonable for me to assume your degree is from San Jose State? Sure. Could it be from Stanford? In a universe of infinite probabilities, yes. However, with no further evidence, it’s safe - for informal, discussion purposes - to assume you’re a Spartan alum.

What I got out of this is that Asians got screwed by the Dem machine.

What I get from the comments is that people think California politicians care about anyone else’s seats.  It’s every man or woman for themselves. I seriously doubt if any one of them care less if it would help the party as a whole if it meant losing their own seat.

And Bob.  I bet with a $250k prize, you could get someone to make that algorithm, and for $750k you could get the data.

Outstanding post-mortem! You have to wonder what’s worse for us folks in California: the disease or the cure.

David Salaverry

Dec. 22, 2011, 1:26 a.m.

I was a conservative CA redistricting activist who attend 30 CCRC hearings, made 20 public comments, sent dozens of memos, followed the commish from Redding to San Diego and got to know all the players.  Six months of Motel 6 and Burger King, all on my own dime.

The commish *was* inept, arrogant and corrupt. The CA GOP was equally clueless.  I sparred with Paul Mitchell but we grew to like each other.  He’s a smart, focused guy… this article will make his career.  .

Bottom line: citizens commissions are easily manipulated.  Props 11/20 were rife with unintended consequences.  If Pelosi & Co had torpedoed the Props, at least citizens would have had perfect clarity they were getting screwed.

Kudos to ProPublica for digging and outing this boondoggle.

Roland De Wolk

Dec. 22, 2011, 1:34 a.m.

Two quickies:

—Why no disclosure that the cool old map graphic at top is so old it is wholly inaccurate? One wonders about the news judgment that led to that and what it says about The Nation/The National Review hybrid that folos.

—Hats off to the civilized and telling debate in the comments that tell much more than the editorial-wrapped-in-investigative-reporting Xmas tinsel from Walgreens.

I suppose I’ll stick to old-school news reporting that at least tries to simply tell the story and doesn’t preach at me what to think. I can get that in church Sundays. Thanks.

Merry Christmas! (With the salaries this non-profit is paying its editors it should be merry indeed.)

@Salaverry - While this was obviously a boondoggle, is it - perhaps - too early to dismiss the CCRC as irrelevant just yet? I think any new institution is prone to error and manipulation and I think it would be naive to assume any attempt to limit or eliminate gerrymandering could produce meaningful reforms overnight. I’m quite hopeful - in light of this excellent ProPublica report - the next iteration of the CCRC will be somewhat more savvy and effective and, the third, better still.

The original method for electing the President and Vice-President broke down after just a few elections cycles and required the 12th amendment. The framers of laws can never anticipate every eventuality.

@ Rolo - if indeed, this really is you, please limit your comments to the topic at hand, not regaling us with stories of how important stories printed with ink on the bark of dead trees was when you started working at the Chron back in 1883 and how relevant you believe this 16th century technology is to the present. Thanks, boo!

Fed up taxpayer

Dec. 22, 2011, 2:06 a.m.

The corrupt, power hungry Democrats strike again, but the biased liberal media won’t even report on this.

No wonder why the state is in the toilet.

After sifting and searching the entire article hoping to find something egregious enough to justify that title ...  I am left with a headache and bad taste in my mouth, not for “redistricting commissions” or “hired experts” or “consultants” but the authors of this blather. Shame on you, we are divided in our communities and country and while many of us take the time to better educate ourselves in this current mess, you purport to have earned a place in this arena by being “journalism for the public interest”? you wrote a title to illicit a “jump” from your readers, and as it turns out, it’s nothing but more of the same divisive, one-sided, twisted drivel.

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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