Why the ProPublica Remap Yarn is Nonsense


The pseudo investigation by Olga Pierce and Jeff Larson of New York-based ProPublica, purporting to expose “How Democrats Fooled California’s Redistricting Commission,” is misleading at best, dishonest at worst and fatally flawed in any case.

All you really need to know about their over-reaching piece is this: the reporters studiously ignored documented research and statistical evidence they were provided that conflicted or undercut their conclusion — that projected Democratic gains in the state’s House delegation are the result of a secret and nefarious partisan manipulation of the political naïfs on the commission.

In the course of their reporting, Calbuzz has learned, Pierce interviewed Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California, one of the state’s top non-partisan reapportionment experts, who explained to her that the gains forecast for Democrats represent a logical and expected result given a) demographic changes in the last decade and b) the criteria the commission was charged with using.

McGhee even emailed Pierce an advance copy of a 45-page analysis of the commission plan he co-authored with Vladimir Kogan of UC San Diego, which is scheduled to be published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy in a few months next month (their report is here). Among its conclusions: given the gerrymandered districts used for the last decade, “it seems unlikely that it is possible to draw any plan that increases competition among congressional seats without also advantaging the Democrats.”

But when the ProPublica report published Wednesday – claiming that Democratic operatives had “managed to replicate the results of the smoke-filled rooms of old” (yes, they actually wrote that) – there was no mention of the detailed and comprehensive McGhee-Kogan research, nor even a reference to the facts, background and context on which it is based.

“If there was a credible argument on the other side,” of ProPublica’s conclusion, McGhee told us, “I don’t understand why they didn’t include it.”

Here’s a thought: maybe East Coast whiz kids Pierce and Larson didn’t want to clutter up their big splashy shocker with a bunch of what we like to call “actual facts.”

The clunker smell test: Plainly put, their piece is the worst kind of ersatz “investigative” reporting: lots of heavy breathing and over-reaching conclusions drawn from selectively using, twisting or ignoring facts, relying on innuendo and suggestion, and mischaracterizing crucial elements of the story to inferentially allege an impropriety where none exists. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more. Moreover, ProPublica never even called the commission for a comment on its much-ballyhooed “findings.”

In failing the smell test, this clunker promises plenty, but simply doesn’t deliver the goods.

Where should we start? The story lives and dies on this early assertion:

The citizens’ commission had pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players.

We asked the ProPublica reporters to provide us the source of that assertion. In an email response Larson replied: “From the text of the referendum and laws.”

Which, alas, say nothing of the sort. The statement in the story, is quite simply, not true. It’s a false premise, the faulty foundation on which the piece is built. The law, as the commission digested it, instructed the panel to (in this order):

1. Draw districts with equal population, based on the U.S. Constitution.

2. Comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, to ensure minority voters have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.

3. Draw districts that are contiguous, so that a district should be connected at all points.

4. Respect counties, cities, communities of interest, and neighborhoods, to the extent possible.

5. Draw districts to be compact, where practicable, and applied only after the earlier criteria have been satisfied.

6. Draw districts to nest within each other, where practicable. That is, one Senate district contains two Assembly districts, one Board of Equalization district contains ten Senate districts, and so on.

7. Additionally the Commission may not consider an incumbent or political candidate’s residence in creating a district.

The commission did exactly what it was supposed to do.

Berman vs. Sherman: As we noted back in June, McGhee observed that the commission’s draft maps were quite similar to two 2005 plans, one from the Rose Institute and one from the Institute for Governmental Studies, that were prepared to show how the state could be mapped without gerrymandering.

“They have met their mission,” he said of the commission. “They didn’t consider partisanship and they didn’t consider incumbency.”

If you don’t believe it, just ask senior Democratic U.S. Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, who got tossed into the same L.A. district and are now engaged in a death match. Berman and his brother, Michael, have been central players in Democratic gerrymandering efforts for decades; it’s intriguing to find that the single most visible result of ProPublica’s presumed plot is that Howard got royally screwed.

Let’s be clear: paying no never mind to the effect of their maps on incumbents and potential candidates is NOT the same as refusing to hear the arguments from Republicans, Democrats, Latinos, Asian-Americans, one-eyed-Basques, bran-muffin liberals, gun-rack Libertarians or anyone else who wanted to make the case for their particular “community of interest,” whatever that might be.

Even secretly-organized (gasp!) Congressional partisans.

So the commission never “pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players,” as ProPublica falsely asserts. They “pledged” – because it was the law they had to follow – to remain independent of incumbents and candidates. Which they were.

Un-useful idiots: There were five Democrats, five Republicans (who were over-represented by party registration) and four independents on the commission. They each had their own worldview. Some of them partisan. That was expected and sanctioned. This was, after all, a political process. What they were NOT was an extension of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in Sacramento and Washington.

And they weren’t idiots. They knew BOTH parties would try to influence them (which was also OK).

“By nature of the beast, we of the commission always knew that political interests would try to influence the process. That’s why we tried to cast a wide net, given the resources we had to do the job,” Connie Galambos-Malloy, one of four “decline to state” voters on the 14-member commission, told Carla Marinucci of the SF Chronicle.

“It’s really hard to believe the Democrats would have pulled one over on the Commission to this extent because when you look at the maps themselves, Reps. Sherman and Berman — two of the most influential and ranking members of the House — are drawn into the same district,” she said.

In other words, the law never said commissioners shouldn’t listen to the arguments from “political players.” What it said is this: “The place of residence of any incumbent or political candidate shall not be considered in the creation of a map. Districts shall not be drawn for the purpose of favoring or discriminating against an incumbent, political candidate, or political party.” [emphasis ours]

In fact, on its web site, the commission advised: “Speaking up about your community is critical to ensuring district lines are drawn to keep your community whole and grouped with nearby communities with similar interests. This ensures that your voice is heard by your elected leaders in such decisions as to the quality of your child’s school or how high your taxes are.”

Give us Barabba: As Jason Hoppin noted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, in a story recounting how Santa Cruz fought to keep from being divided in two:

“There would be a lineup of people who pretty much were carrying the same message. At that point it raises a question in your mind,” said Capitola resident Vince Barabba, who served on the 14-member commission. “When you hear that, you just take that into consideration.”

If Democrats tried to influence the process, by no means were they the only ones. Everyone from the city of Santa Cruz to Equality California to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund sent representatives to commission meetings.

“And we expected that,’ said Barabba, a Republican former U.S. Census director who strongly supports the way California handled redistricting and feels the story is a disservice to the process. “They were well prepared. They didn’t just go up there yelling and screaming. They had a lot of facts on their side.”

More: in telling the story of how the Democrats operated to influence the commission to create a single San Joaquin County district that would be safe for U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney, the ProPublica reporters note: “Republicans moved first, attempting to create a district that would keep San Joaquin County whole and pick up conservative territory to the south.”

So Republicans “moved first” to protect their partisan interests. Hmmm. Mysteriously, that doesn’t seem to have been an issue worth spending much time on for Pierce-Larson.

Inquiring minds want to know: Why not? Maybe because – we’re just thinking out loud here – as with the hot-off-the-presses statistical study they dumped, it didn’t fit their thesis?

Sock puppets in San Joaquin: In the end, the Republicans were outmaneuvered by a sock-puppet group called OneSanJoaquin that worked to do exactly the same thing the GOP was trying to do – but which, sadly for them, wound up helping McNerney when he jumped into the newly created San Joaquin district.

What exactly is the point here? That the Congressional Dems – working through a front group — did a better job of making their case to the commission than the Republicans had?

Actually, as we noted back in August:

Of 173 total incumbents in the Legislature and the House (we refuse to think about the Board of Eek because we never really understood what they do and in any case hope they go away), 75 landed in a district with at least one other incumbent; in most cases – 59 – it’s an incumbent of the same party, while 16 are matched in a district with an incumbent of the other party.

 This is a bigger deal in the House, where 15 Democrats and 8 Republicans ended up in a district with another incumbent. But for legislative seats, many of the same party incumbent pairings include at least one office holder who will be termed out next year; only 10 Assembly members are in a district with a colleague who’s not termed out, and just two senators are in that situation..

Said McGhee at the time:

 “The randomness of this—coupled with the fact that in many, if not most, of these cases, there is an open seat next door that is more comfortable for one of the incumbents—suggests to me that the commissioners really didn’t know where the incumbents were located.”

Shooting the wounded: Marinucci and Hoppin have been joined by John Myers and our old pal Robert Cruickshank over at Calitics in blowing big holes in the ProPublica article:

From the Oracle of Cruickshank’s terrific deconstruction:

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.”

Bottom line: The plain fact is that while Democratic registration has been essentially flat in recent years, Republican registration has fallen into the toilet, and the GOP now represents less than one-third of state voters.

This means that Democrats represent an increasing proportion of the electorate; add to that the fact that decline-to-state independents, the fastest growing bloc of registered voters, also tend to vote Democratic, as we’ve shown previously.

This makes Johnson’s claim that Republicans are entitled to at least their current number of seats, which is the money quote of the Pierce-Larson opus, not only laughable but also intellectually dishonest. Sort of like the whole piece.

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There are 6 comments for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    It’s unfortunate that ProPublica should shoot itself in the foot like this. And it’s fortunate that we have Carla Marinucci, Dan Walters, and CalBuzz to set the record straight. The Redistricting Commission did a most admirable job under challenging circumstances and deserves national respect. ProPublica should quickly come out with a mea culpa.

  2. avatar sqrjn says:

    Seems like the article has some serious confirmation bias issues, just read propublica’s mission statement. Who they are and the type of story they want to tell is crystal clear. But isn’t the point that the independent commission did exactly what the old system would have done valid. Voters wanted a change and didn’t get one, they wanted a system that was transparent and whose results would be more trustworthy/valid/credible. This experiment seems to show that there will always be a winner/loser controversy with redistricting and allegations of improper influence. Demographics and the balance of political power result in a predictable outcome. The only reasonable goal is to avoid the worst abuses that undermine public trust and to perform the redistricting as efficiently as possible.

  3. avatar Ernie Konnyu says:

    You make a good case about the Pro Publica reappo story but other facts reveal how mysterious forces politically raped Republicans above and beyond the demographic forces at work.

    I was examining what was done to State Senator Sam Blakeslee’s district, the old Republican lean 15th and the new solid Demo 18th. What I found was pure political robbery.

    To create the new 18th, the reappo folks deleted all of the predominately Republican voting Santa Barbara county and the Republican lean portion of Santa Clara county including Saratoga, Los Gatos and Almaden. To make up for these deletions the reappo folks added Demo voting areas in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Moterey counties.

    While there are no fingerprints on who stuck the political knife in Senator Blakeslee’s back, the knife is definitely there. The old 40% Republican registration is down to the new 32%

    So Calbuzz just because I can not name the criminal who raped the Republicans, denying that a crime has been committed benefitting the Demos is rationally impossible.

    • avatar chrisfinnie says:

      And the new 18th is worse than the old district? Really? In order to create–yes, create–a Republican-leaning district, the Assembly put together parts of 5 counties in a district that stretched 250 miles. In some cases like Santa Clara, they included little corners of just certain neighborhoods. It wasn’t even whole towns or cities.

      As much as I’d love to rid California of big oil’s favorite state senator, Sam Blakeslee, I have a hard time believing the more compact 18th was a deliberate attempt to oust him. I have a very easy time believing the former district was gerrymandered to make it easier for a Republican to win.

      Eliminating districts like this one was supposed to be the whole reason for taking redistricting out of the hands of the Assembly. The California GOP has been advocating for it for years because they haven’t had an Assembly majority in a long time and so couldn’t count on being able to draw lines to their liking. And now you compare the results to rape?

      Don’t be a sore loser Ernie.

      If Bill Monning wins this seat, California will be better for it. He’s a fine man and a good representative. I say that as a constituent who worked for one of his primary opponents the year he first won his current Assembly seat. I’m only sorry I’m not in the 18th myself. I’d gladly have Bill continue to represent me. He’s done a great job!

  4. The ProPublica story is valuable to the extent that it exposed previously unknown facts. However, it totally missed the mark in its conspiracy theory innuendo and macro-level conclusions. I actually feel bad for the reporters who are clearly victims of their own cynicism – particularly given the effort they put into their investigation.

    Good analysis, Calbuzz.

  5. avatar JL Sherman Oaks says:

    It is impossible to have confidence in the reporting of ProPublica when they included this comment: ” ‘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 adopts its Congressional map for the San Fernando Valley.”

    So Stuart Waldman/VICA put together the plan that pits Howard Berman and Brad Sherman?

    Wow. Not something I would want to be bragging about!

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