In the first story of a new series, reporter Olga Pierce and news application developer Jeff Larson examine how corporations, unions and other special interests are manipulating the redistricting process in their favor by funneling money through purportedly independent redistricting groups.
As these murky groups play a more dominant role, Pierce and Larson explain on the podcast this week that voters are the ones ultimately losing.
“What we're trying to point out is that drawing the maps to benefit a particular person is kind of problematic. If you're an outside group creating a safe district for a particular person, then essentially what you're doing is you're taking away people's votes,” Larson says.
Pierce adds, “What more fundamental tenant of democracy is there than ‘one person, one vote?’ If that's gone, then what else is there?”
Read the full transcript below. You can also subscribe to all of ProPublica’s podcasts on iTunes.
Mike Webb: Hi, I'm Mike Webb and you’re listening to the ProPublica podcast. Last week, we published what will be the first in a series of stories about how powerful players have turned to increasingly sophisticated tools and techniques to game the redistricting process. And unfortunately for voters, the playing field is often tilted in favor of special interest groups. In the piece, reporters Olga Pierce, Jeff Larson, and Lois Beckett showed how corporations, unions and other special interests have skirted campaign finance laws, misled the public about their goals and used their incumbency to extract donations to their cause. And with more disclosure loopholes, it's hard to tell who’s supporting the principle of "one person, one vote" and who’s working to help their political allies or harm their enemies.
Joining us here in the storage closet studio, our reporter Olga Pierce and news application developer Jeff Larson. Welcome to the podcast.
Olga Pierce: Thanks, Mike.
Jeff Larson: Thanks.
Mike: All right. Why don't we start by just explaining exactly what redistricting is.
Olga: Once every 10 years, the Constitution requires that congressional districts be redrawn to reflect changes in demographics. Some states might lose a seat because fewer people live there. Other states might gain a seat because more people live there. There are also other demographic changes that might cause redistricting. The Voting Rights Act requires that if there's a certain concentration of a minority population that they get certain protections in the way districts are drawn.
Mike: And every state does it differently? And who’s responsible in the states?
Olga: In most states the districts are drawn by state legislatures. In a few states they have either a political commission that would be made up of state legislators or sometimes it's the State Attorney General or the Secretary of State, something like that. And in a few cases there are citizen redistricting commissions that are made up of independent individuals.
Mike: OK. And in the end it kind of seems like, since incumbents generally seem to win reelection, it seems like the districts are drawn in favor of the incumbents.
Olga: Well, you can see that it could be an ethically questionable situation when legislators are in charge of drawing their own districts, which is what happens in state legislatures. The state legislators get together. I say, "I want this neighborhood. I want this census block." And you say, "OK, but then I want this census block." And we work it out so that everybody can win.
Mike: Let the horse trading begin. All right. You wrote about the case of Democratic Congressional Woman Corrine Brown. Tell us about how she tried to protect her seat.
Jeff: So in Florida, what Corrine Brown did was she basically has a district that's gerrymandered to create a majority‑minority district, which means that she has a majority citizen voting age population of African‑Americans in her district.
Olga: The way I would characterize it is traditionally African‑Americans in Florida had been aligned with the Democratic Party. But when it came time to redistrict in the 1990 redistricting cycle, they really felt like they weren't being listened to by the Democrats. So they ended up forging a bargain with the Republican Party. The Republicans wanted many districts to have fewer minorities in them so they would be more Republican. And the minority candidates wanted districts where they felt like they could win. Corrine Brown's district has a high proportion of African‑Americans.
Mike: That's to ensure that they're represented.
Olga: But what that means is that all the surrounding districts have had the African‑Americans carved out, and so they're basically much whiter than they would be otherwise. Actually, in redistricting parlance that's called ‘bleaching,’ for people keeping track at home.
Jeff: So in the example of Corrine Brown's district in the south, her district goes all the way from Jacksonville in the north to Orlando in the south and it basically carves out all of the black neighborhoods of Orlando. So if you look at the city of Orlando where African‑Americans live, that's part of Corrine Brown's district. But if you cross the street, you're in an entirely different district that has a very low level of African‑Americans currently.
Mike: OK. And she got Honeywell and CSX to contribute money to her efforts in this.
Olga: Right. So Corrine Brown, because of the way her district was drawn, had a very safe district. But then because there is this sort of historical deal with Republicans, a coalition of citizens groups, like the League of Women Voters, unions, and there was some Democratic support also, tried to push through these amendments to the State Constitution that basically required that districts be drawn a different way.
Olga: One of the requirements was that districts not be 100 miles long and a few miles wide, like Corrine Brown's district.
Mike: Right. It goes over a bridge to get to the community, as Jeff talked about.
Olga: But instead be more compact so that people in the same community could be in the same district. And Corrine Brown is kind of worried about that because her district would be certainly in violation of the new guidelines. So she joined a group called Protect Your Vote, a very benign‑sounding name.
Olga: But what it ended up doing was basically funneling a bunch of corporate donations into the redistricting process. So companies like CSX, Honeywell, the largest sugar producers in Florida, gave altogether hundreds of thousands of dollars to support this group that claimed it was standing up for African‑American voting rights. But the Florida NAACP, the Black Caucus in the Florida State Legislature, and other groups actually said we think Corrine Brown is really more worried about Corrine Brown and not so much worried about the voting rights of African‑Americans in Florida.
Mike: Well, it was interesting to me because both of those companies, CSX and Honeywell, had business in front of her congressional committees.
Olga: Yeah. Corrine Brown and CSX go back a long way. CSX, through their political action committee, has given a lot of money to Corrine Brown's campaigns. She sits on the House subcommittee that deals with railroads, and CSX is a railroad company. So obviously they have business with her subcommittee. Honeywell has a lot of government contracts, many of which are under the purview of Corrine Brown's committees. Corrine Brown is sort of famous for her ability to deliver federal contracts to her district. In fact, her campaign slogan was "Corrine Delivers." You can see why it might benefit corporations to contribute money to help Corrine Brown keep her seat.
Mike: OK. And do corporations contribute a lot of money to these kinds of activities?
Olga: Well, one of the defining characteristics of what we found is that there's almost no transparency. So it appears that it's likely that corporations give a lot of money, but in many cases there's no way to know. These groups don't have to disclose how much money they've received and they choose not to.
Mike: Why not?
Olga: Through a series of decisions, some by the FEC, some by state bodies that govern campaign finance, redistricting is apparently not a political activity. So if I am raising money to help stray dogs or I am raising money to influence the redistricting process, it's kind of treated the same way under campaign finance law.
Mike: Tell us about the voter guides that a Democratic‑leaning group in California called Yes Unfair prepared.
Olga: So one of the running themes in our story, I think, is that politicians and special interests that are really looking out for themselves are using the language of voting rights to advance their cause. So in California there was a push to establish an independent redistricting commission, which would have taken the drawing of districts out of the hands of the state legislature. But Democrats, which controlled the state legislature, weren't super excited about that. So they raised a bunch of money from unions and some big Democratic donors and also some corporations, and started putting out these bogus voter guides.
Basically, the way it works is you create a fictitious group, Senior Citizens for Security, or whatever. You print up a flashy card. At the top of the card you endorse candidates you know those people would support. So you say, "Jerry Brown for Governor," and then you keep going down the ticket. Then at the bottom you say, "And no on Proposition 20," or "Yes on Proposition 27."
And so you've essentially bamboozled someone into thinking that you are a likeminded group when in fact you might be just the opposite. In California, I think the most insidious case was a fake voter guide aimed at Latinos called the "Our Voice Latino Voter Guide."
Mike: And what did it say?
Olga: That was urging Latinos to be against the Citizens Redistricting Commission even though they're one of the groups that had the most to gain from the commission being established.
Mike: OK. And then in Massachusetts there was Fair Districts Mass. What did they do to get unlimited corporate funding?
Jeff: So Fair Districts Mass is actually really, really interesting. It's a couple of former Republicans who used to be Republican. I think one of them is in the State House now. What they did in the last couple rounds of redistricting is they would go in front of the elections board and say, "Hey, can we get unlimited donations?" And because they had Republican in their name, basically what would happen is they would say, "No, you're a political group." So this time around they went in front of the board and they said, "Can we have unlimited donations? We're this group, Fair Districts." And they got basically carte blanche. They don't have to disclose who is donating to their cause.
What they ended up doing is they've drawn two maps, which we're going to put on our website. One map in particular basically draws the city of Lynn out of the North Shore district in Massachusetts. And the city of Lynn is the stronghold of John Tierney, who is a Democratic congressman from Northern Massachusetts.
In effect what that does is it gives him, according to the group's own research... It gives him what they like to call an incumbency score of one or two and basically makes him unelectable, according to their own research. They told us that these plans were to help minorities, but there are questions about that.
Mike: Right. So they're nonpartisan but they're trying to knock off their opponents.
Jeff: Yeah, perhaps.
Jeff: I mean that's what the research says.
Jeff: The research that they put out.
Olga: Well, if you look at the great maps that Jeff made...
Mike: Which will be online.
Olga: You can see that the districts they're drawing that they say will help minorities might not exactly do that. Both of the districts they propose would be 50 percent white people. So already that's kind of a problem. Then the minority population would essentially be half Latino and half African‑American.
Jeff: And a little bit Asian‑American.
Olga: A little bit Asian.
Mike: And they don't necessarily vote as a block.
Olga: Yeah. Geographically they're two neighborhoods that are on opposite sides of the Boston Metropolitan Area.
Jeff: Over two bridges.
Olga: It's not really clear that their political interests are aligned or that they would vote as a block.
Mike: OK. Ultimately this strikes me as a political story, and politics is politics. So why is this a ProPublica story?
Jeff: I've talked to Olga about this a lot. My theory is that largely when people cover redistricting it's seen as the Democrats win three and the Republicans lose two, or this district's going to be a safe district for such‑and‑such, or this district is going to be hard for so‑and‑so. And what we're trying to point out is that drawing the maps to benefit a particular person is kind of problematic. If you're an outside group creating a safe district for a particular person, then essentially what you're doing is you're taking away people's votes.
Jeff: So what we're trying to do here is just trying to point out that this is something that seems to be happening in a lot of places where we've been looking.
Olga: Yeah, we’ve been disappointed with a lot of the coverage of redistricting because it treats it like a game, and we don't think it's a game. What more fundamental tenant of democracy is there than "one person, one vote"? If that's gone, then what else is there?
Mike: All right. Well, Jeff and Olga, that's a really great story and I thank you both very much for joining us. Jeff, I know you've had a lot on your mind with your pending nuptials, so I do want to say here's to many years of happiness between you and Caitlin. Congratulations.
Mike: All right. Thanks for joining us.
Olga: Thanks, Mike.
Mike: That was Jeff Larson and Olga Pierce. You can read this story and see their notated map of Representative Brown's district at propublica.org/redistricting. And now for our Officials Say the Darndest Things Tumblr quote of the week. "If you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended." Who said it? Texas Governor Rick Perry, responding to charges from Michele Bachmann that he once tried to mandate HPV vaccinations for girls to curry favor with drug maker Merck.
OK. That's it for this week's show. Thanks to Minhee Cho for producing. Thanks to you for listening. And sadly, thanks to politicians of all stripes for giving us fodder to investigate. For ProPublica, I'm Mike Webb. We'll catch you next time.
Transcription by CastingWords