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ProPublica's Absurd Attack on California Redistricting

by: Robert Cruickshank

Thu Dec 22, 2011 at 07:38:51 AM PST


California Democratic Party chair John Burton and I agree on many things (one reason I voted for him to be chair back in April 2009). One of them is that this ProPublica article attacking California's redistricting is complete bullshit.

ProPublica's argument is basically this: California Democrats organized to try and influence the Citizens Redistricting Commission to produce outcomes favorable to Democrats. Ultimately, the Commission produced outcomes favorable to Democrats. Therefore, California Democrats successfully manipulated the commission to produce that result:

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.

This is, as Burton and I both said, complete bullshit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, Pro Publica chose to recycle talking points from the Republican-funded Rose Institute without checking with the Democratic Party. The Rose Institute, which was knocked out of the redistricting process earlier this year because of its explicit ties to the Republican Party, tried to make these charges at beginning of the Commission's deliberations where they were clearly rejected. If the Rose Institute and the Republican Party believed the Democratic Party controlled the independent Commission, one would think they would have challenged all three redistricting plans in court, instead of just one.

Ouch. If I followed ProPublica's method of analysis, I would conclude that they were collaborating with the Rose Institute to produce an article smearing the commission - which is essentially the charge they've leveled at Democrats and the commission.

Instead I'll continue pointing out other absurdities in their article. They claim that the fact that Jerry McNerney and Judy Chu got favorable districts proves Dems gamed the system. But tell that to Dennis Cardoza, drawn into a Valley district with Jim Costa. Tell that to Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, drawn into a battle-to-the-death in west LA. Tell that to Janice Hahn, backed by the party establishment only to be drawn into a south bay district with Laura Richardson.

Even Bob Mulholland managed to say something useful about this, pointing out that the way the commission was set up made it impervious to bias:

Democratic Party campaign advisor Bob Mulholland, in an email, said it would have been "easier to influence North Korea" than the redistricting commission, which was made up of three Republicans, three Democrats and two decline to state voters chosen through a lengthy vetting and lottery process.

ProPublica also took issue with the fact that the commission ignored voter registration when drawing the lines. But wasn't that part of the entire point of the commission?

John Myers has an interesting take on the report that is half right and half wrong in its conclusions. First, what he got right:

Finally, an observation about a mindset that seems to exist not only with ProPublica's national reporting team but others who have watched or participated in the redistricting commission's work. And that is that California voters created a "nonpartisan process" for drawing political districts. However, neither Prop 11 nor Prop 20 ever specifically promised a "nonpartisan" commission -- that is, one made up of members and opinions with no formal political allegiances. Instead, what the two initiatives promised was a commission "independent" from elected officials and the tendency to gerrymander.

That's a key distinction. 75% of California voters have chosen to identify with a political party. Most of the remainder have chosen to identify with no party at all, choosing "Decline to State" as their option - though as we know, most of these DTS voters wind up voting Democratic anyway. In any case, with 3 out of 4 Californians openly embracing a partisan identity, it makes sense that they did NOT want a "nonpartisan" commission since the electorate itself is willingly partisan.

No, the primary selling point of the commission was that elected officials could not control it. The ads and arguments for it played on public distrust of politicians, not of political parties.

Myers should know that, which is why his final paragraph is so odd:

And yet time and again through the process, some observers criticized Democrats on the panel for acting like -- well, Democrats -- and Republicans for acting like -- well, Republicans. (The criticisms were much more numerous, it should be noted, against the commission's Dems.) Four other members of the commission were unaffiliated with either party, but often had to make decisions that favored one partisan mindset or the other. If the public truly expected an apolitical redistricting process, then they were set up for disappointment from the very start.

But they did NOT expect an "apolitical" redistricting process. Voters are not idiots. They know there is no such thing as "apolitical." They liked the commission because it was designed to limit the influence of elected officials, and it quite clearly did so. Finally, given that Californians have so strongly endorsed Democrats on Election Day, it is hard to believe that the outcome of the commission was anything close to a disappointment.

ProPublica's article relies on flimsy evidence and assumptions that fly in the face of common sense. Anyone who knows anything about California politics could easily see the flaws here.

Democrats didn't get favorable maps because they organized for it. They got favorable maps because California favors Democrats and has clearly rejected the Republicans. The California GOP is a dying party, increasingly being left behind as state politics realigns toward a system where progressives and corporate-friendly politicians are the two dominant forces, with Republicans on the fringe.

ProPublica knew nothing about California's demography or politics, and produced a ridiculous article either out of gullibility or conspiracy. In the end it doesn't matter which one it was. Their article should be laughed out of the room and ProPublica shouldn't be taken seriously again, at least not until they retract that article.

Robert Cruickshank :: ProPublica's Absurd Attack on California Redistricting
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This comes close on the heels of PolitiFact's bizzare choice (0.00 / 0)
of a tepid Democratic "failure to qualify" a reasonable assertion over four Republican whoppers as its "Lie of the Year".

Is there some kind of year-end filing deadline for independent media to renew their credentials for "Fair & Balanced" reporting by beating up Democrats?

http://www.washingtonmonthly.c...


excellent analysis (0.00 / 0)
   but you got a couple of locations of districts wrong. The Sherman-Berman nuclear war will be in the San Fernando Valley, not West L.A. The SFV is the northwestern part of Los Angeles but is never considered to be west L.A. We're in the 818; West L.A. is the 310 area code.

  The Hahn-Richardson race (also featuring Assemblymember Isador Hall) is a Long Beach based district which also includes San Pedro (the port of the city of L.A.) where Hahn lives. Her current district includes the South Bay but the new one does not.


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