ProPublica Continues to Evade the Key Questions

Yesterday, shortly after I posted my latest entry on the ProPublica redistricting story scandal, ProPublica posted a response to critics. Unfortunately, the response continues to evade the key questions and criticisms made of their article, particularly their lack of knowledge of California politics and their strange assumption that somehow it’s wrong if Democrats wind up benefiting from the new lines.

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

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

Still, fewer Democrats might have lost than it seems.

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

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

This is a non-sequitur answer. One of the key reasons for the commission was voter anger that incumbents were essentially “drawing their own lines.” It should be noted I didn’t share that reasoning, and I in fact opposed this commission. But the commission was given loud and clear direction by voters to ignore incumbency and that is precisely what they did.

Q: What about Reps. Berman and Sherman getting drawn [4] into a district together?

A: As many have noted, Democratic U.S. Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman were drawn into the same district [5], and as were Reps. Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson.

Several people — including members of the redistricting commission [6] — have pointed to the Berman-Sherman face-off, in particular, as evidence that the commission was not manipulated by Democrats.

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

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

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

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

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

So people tried to influence the commission. Big fucking deal. That in and of itself is not a news story. What ProPublica asserted – and has so far been entirely unable to prove – is that these efforts to influence actually succeeded in swaying the commission’s decisions. But commissioners themselves – whom ProPublica did not deign to interview – have consistently denied that their decisions were affected by this lobbying.

Q: Didn’t Republicans and others try to influence the commission too?

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

For instance, Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, tried to enlist his allies to urge the commission to draw him a friendly district. Last April, McKeon emailed a local trade group with defense industry tries encouraging them to “advocate to the Redistricting Commission” for McKeon’s ideal district. (Read the email [7].) McKeon didn’t return our requests for comment.

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

Again, ProPublica asserts that Democratic influencing efforts “succeeded” without having any evidence to defend this claim. The fact that anyone was trying to influence anything is itself unremarkable.

Q: California is a blue state. In a fair process, shouldn’t the Democrats [4] “win” [8] redistricting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a response to my criticism on Thursday – or at least it’s intended as a response. Note that ProPublica does not actually deal with the substance of my question.

Democrats have a 44-30 registration advantage over Republicans. And many voters registered as “Decline to State” actually vote consistently for Democrats. Remember also that Republicans got swept in the 2010 elections and dating back to 1998 have had trouble winning more than one or two statewide seats. Their last US Senator was elected in 1986. They last had a majority in the state legislature in 1970.

In short, given the fact that California voters have consistently favored Democrats for the last few decades, any outcome that did not result in increasing opportunities for Democrats to win seats would not have been an accurate reflection of political reality.

As to Judy Chu, ProPublica asserts that organizing efforts were done on her behalf. In fact, organizing was done to ensure Asian-Americans had a majority district. The redistricting commissioners were subject to both state and federal Voting Rights Act rules. And Asian-Americans have faced historic discrimination in California. So it makes sense that there will be at least one Asian-American district in the state. And many Asian-American voting rights advocates were actually disappointed in the work of the commission. The district benefits an Asian-American candidate and it won’t necessarily be Judy Chu.

Q: The Commission was never meant [9] to be non-partisan.

A: We’ll let readers judge for themselves. The voter referendum creating the commission called for “nonpartisan rules designed to ensure fair representation.”

Here is the language voters saw in the ballot box [10]:

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

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

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

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

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

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

ProPublica is imparting their own meaning to this question. The commission was in fact never meant to be non-partisan because it had partisan representation written into the proposition that created it. In fact, one reason I opposed the commission is that it gave an unfair advantage to Republicans, giving them the same number of seats as Democrats even though they had many fewer valid registrations.

Further, the commission did act in a non-partisan way by refusing to review party registration when drawing up boundaries, a fact ProPublica criticized them for doing. So it seems ProPublica wants to have it both ways here – criticizing the commission for being “partisan” while also criticizing them for ignoring partisanship.

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

The public hearing transcripts clearly show that a lot of testimony was received by the commission. But the commission cancelled a second round of draft maps and the hearings they said they would do with them. Many groups criticized this move [11] as limiting citizen input.

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

Here is the commission’s statement [12] on our article.

Of course, commissioners were not sequestered either. They were well aware of all efforts to influence them – and in fact took steps to minimize that influence. Cancelling the hearings was in fact an effort to do just that. Once again ProPublica wants to have it both ways in their criticisms.

Ultimately this “response” does not really address the key questions. So I’ll state them again:

1. Does ProPublica have any hard evidence establishing a causal link between efforts to influence the commissioners and the commissioners’ decisions as reflected in the final maps? By “hard evidence” I do not mean circumstantial or correlative evidence, but something that actually proves, beyond doubt, that commissioners made their decisions based on the influence they were given?

2. Does ProPublica acknowledge that for at least 13 years California voters have made their preferences for Democrats extremely clear, and that under no logical argument can a case be made that Republicans “deserved” more favorable seats?

3. Can ProPublica explain why they did not bother to interview any commissioners for their article?

4. Can ProPublica explain why they did not bother to quote PPIC expert Eric McGhee even though he explained Democratic gains were a logical outcome of the process in an interview with Olga Pierce?

5. Following up on #4, can ProPublica confirm or deny that their article was written with the intent to question California redistricting because it is projected to favor Democrats, and all dissenting voices were excluded from the article in order to produce that conclusion?

6. Did ProPublica write this article in an attempt to placate the right and/or Republicans after they published a series of articles criticizing pro-GOP redistricting?

7. Does ProPublica have any detailed knowledge of California political trends?

8. Does ProPublica have any detailed knowledge of California demographic trends?

Feel free to add other questions in the comments.

From what I can tell, ProPublica is just another one of these supposedly “independent” news sites that actually gets stories fundamentally wrong because they are interested in making everyone look bad and finding “evidence” of wrongdoing even if no such evidence exists. Rather than tell their readers the truth – that Republicans were doomed to lose out in any fair redistricting process and that they are now whining about it to anyone who will listen – they are misleading their readers by concocting a story in an effort to score cheap journalistic points.

One of the primary reasons blogging exists is because for media outlets like ProPublica, telling the truth is no longer valued.

4 thoughts on “ProPublica Continues to Evade the Key Questions”

  1. They last had a majority in the state legislature in 1970.

    This is correct when one refers to having a majority in both houses; after the 1994 GOP wave, they had a two year majority in the State Assembly (41-39) but the State Senate was Democratic (22-18.)  That’s about as close as the GOP has come to a majority in both houses (and one must wonder, if all 40 senate seats came up, instead of half, what mischief they might have done?) in 41 years.

    Other than that, I agree.  To think, I used to respect Pro Publica.

  2. Really respect what you’ve done here. One question I’d add: Why did ProPublica treat the Rose Institute as a neutral, non-partisan organization when all evidence points to the contrary?

    I think your penultimate graf nails it. This whole thing is really starting to feel like PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” nonsense. As Krugman put it:

    The answer is, of course, obvious: the people at Politifact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other. So they’ve bent over backwards to appear “balanced” – and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant.

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