10 Ways to Improve Redistricting Process

FEB. 7, 2012


Parents and gamblers have a hard time being objective.

“If you ever put that much money on a pony, you kind of like it when it rounds home,” the self-described “proud father” of the Citizens Redistricting Commission, Charles T. Munger Jr., told a redistricting conference last September. Munger financed the Proposition 11 and Proposition 20 initiatives that instituted the commission.

Last month, Munger’s problem child received an undeserved stamp of approval from the California Supreme Court. Or, if you prefer the gambling analogy, the commission’s maps won because all other maps were disqualified as illegitimate contenders. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s decision is rewriting the redistricting history to eliminate all mention of the commission’s flubs. “The Commission-certified Senate districts also are a product of what generally appears to have been an open, transparent and nonpartisan redistricting process as called for by the current provisions of article XXI,” the court wrote in the first draft of California’s redistricting history.

That might be the worst unintended consequence of the court’s decision: an endorsement of a flawed process that desperately needs fixing. The redistricting commission ran over budget, failed to deliver its three draft maps for public input, went dark and reversed its call for public input, relied on outside help to make data publicly available and even had one meeting end in tears. In mid-July 2011, editorial boards were berating the commission. (See the Ventura County Star, the Los Angeles Daily News, the San Diego Union Tribune and the Santa Cruz Sentinel editorials.) Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was looking into hiring map-drawing consultants.

“The process that the Citizens Redistricting Commission used as a first time effort should not be replicated without significant systemic revision,” Commissioner Mike Ward told me via email. Matt Rexroad, a partner with Meridian Pacific and redistricting expert, offered a few suggestions in a Sacramento Bee opinion piece back in October. Editorial boards and good government groups should set aside their hatred of Republicans and give Rexroad’s reforms a serious look. CalWatchdog has assembled our own list of reforms.

1. Deliver Draft Maps on Schedule as Promised

Problem: The commission promised three draft maps for public input, but failed to deliver anything but the first draft. “Not only did they completely abandon the first draft maps, but they failed to release another complete set of maps until the day prior to the vote,” Rexroad wrote in his second suggestion. The visualizations encouraged the commission to fluctuate back and forth between angry interest groups. When the commission announced it was skipping the second draft maps, Dan Walters described it as taking “the process behind semi-closed doors.” Not so open and transparent, after all.

Solution: Listen to KQED’s John Myers. He first pointed out that the commission confused its legal timeline. “The commission is operating under the belief that the final maps should be available for public inspection for two weeks before being certified on August 15,” he wrote in mid-July. “However, a review of both Proposition 11 and Proposition 20 — the templates for the process — reveals no requirement for that lengthy of a review, other than the public have notice of any meeting at least 14 days in advance.” Two extra weeks could have made the difference between draft maps and visualizations.

2. Adopt an Email Retention Policy to Preserve the Public Record & Ban Private Email Accounts

Problem: It’s never been reported, but Karin McDonald, the mapping consultant for Q2, demanded that commissioners communicate with her about redistricting business via her private email account, not her government email account. Peter Scheer, the executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, has written extensively about why government agencies shouldn’t be allowed to conduct government business via private email accounts. McDonald’s motives are unclear because the emails aren’t public. The commission never had an explicit policy forbidding such behavior or mandating the retention of private email records.

Solution: Adopt Peter Scheer’s three-point email retention policy. Read it here.

3. Commission Oversight: Swap the State Auditor for the FPPC

Problem: The State Auditor was the wrong state agency to monitor redistricting commissioners for potential conflicts of interests. The State Auditor has minimal understanding of the intricacies of campaign finance laws and is a poor choice to review the backgrounds of the commissioners and their families. A memo from the State Auditor’s office that was provided to CalWatchDog.com by an agency spokeswoman described their background searches as “routine” and “obviously rather brief.” 

Solution: Require the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state agency responsible for administering conflict-of-interest documents, to conduct all campaign finance background checks of redistricting commissioners.

4. Campaign Finance Restrictions: Lower the Disclosure Amount to $100

Problem: A campaign contribution is protected political speech because the donation itself is an expression of support for a candidate. It’s not just what the money can buy. Commissioner Gabino Aguirre’s $100 contribution to Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, wasn’t going to make or break the Democrat’s campaign. However, it showed a potential conflict of interest. It was evidence that Aguirre liked and supported Williams for state office. But redistricting commissioners were only required to close donations of $250 or more. 

Solution: Lower the redistricting commissioner disclosure threshold to $100 for campaign or political contributions. The $100 threshold will match state campaign finance law.

5. Campaign Finance Restrictions: Add Business Contributions to the Disclosure Requirements

Problem: Within 18 months of her appointment, Commissioner Jeanne Raya’s business made four campaign contributions to a state political action committee. The business contributions were sizeable, totaling $1,000. Former chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission Dan Schnur said, “The applicant should have listed the contribution: a contribution from a business in which you are the principal is a legitimate indicator of political involvement.” 

Solution: Require commissioners to disclose campaign contributions made on behalf of businesses and organizations in which the applicant serves as a principal officer.

6. Improve Commissioner Disclosure Forms

Problem: State law requires all redistricting commissioners to complete a supplemental application, in which applicants must: “Describe the professional, social, political, volunteer, and community activities in which you have engaged that you believe are relevant to serving as a commissioner, as discussed in Regulation 60847.” This self-disclosure of facts that “you believe are relevant” grants commissioners too much leeway to play innocent later.

Solution: Use the history and public record from this year’s redistricting process to compile a list of relevant organizations. We have an example of the wide range of various community and special interest groups that testified or lobbied the redistricting commission. Compile a list of all organizations and provide a supplemental sheet with specific examples.

7. Sequester Commissioners from Personal Interests, Affiliations and Geographic Bias

Problem: Commissioner Aguirre influenced the commission’s Central Coast maps to favor his political allies at the Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy. Even if commissioners can set aside personal biases, the commission’s code of ethics requires commissioners to “disclose actual or perceived conflicts of interest to the Commission.” Aguirre wasn’t alone. Other commissioners allowed personal histories with geographic areas to affect their map-drawing decisions. (See Rexroad’s Number 8.)

Solution: Sequester commissioners from mapping decisions from affiliated groups, personal and professional relationships and relevant geographic regions.

8. Hire a Neutral In-Process Reviewer to “Check the Checker”

Problem: In his speech at the August 15 press conference, Commissioner Ward outlined why an in-process reviewer was necessary: “This commission also failed on the openness and transparency front, when it failed to adopt an in-process review, a system to ‘check the checker’ to validate that information was accurate, forthright and correct. In one instance, I found that mapping consultants had incorrectly represented the public’s comments.” The commission almost went forward with an in-process reviewer but, according to John Eastman and Charles Bell, writing on the Flash Report, had to backpedal when “a public outroar ensued.”

Solution: Hire an in-process reviewer to evaluate the commission’s work and guarantee that the reviewer is independent and unaffiliated with commissioners, commission staff or mapping consultants.

9. Ban Partisan Hiring Decision or Require Bipartisan Hiring Practices 

Problem: The first time Republicans’ feathers got ruffled was when the commission hired Q2 as the lead mapping consultant. According to the Sacramento Bee, “Q2 met bidding requirements only after a last-minute change by the commission, which initially demanded experience in redistricting projects involving about 2 million people but dropped the standard to about 300,000.” Add the Rose Institute’s disqualification, and you’ve got at least the appearance of biased staffing decisions. Ironically, Doug Johnson of the Rose Institute was one of the first people to argue that the commission didn’t violate the Voting Rights Act with the Los Angeles County congressional splits. (See his quote in my City Journal piece.) There’s no question that Johnson and the Rose Institute would have provided neutral advice to the commission. The commission should have hired Rose and Q2 to avoid partisan complaints. 

Solution: Don’t amend any “invitations for bid” at the last minute and always hire both a Republican and a Democratic mapping consultants.

10. Honesty: Disclose that Commissioners Know How Incumbents Are Affected 

Problem: Proposition 11 mandates, “The place of residence of any incumbent or political candidate shall not be considered in the creation of a map.” The worst secret of the redistricting commission is that commissioners knew where incumbents lived. Emails from the public referenced how incumbents were affected by the draft maps. The commission’s press office distributed news roundups about all redistricting stories, which included the media’s horse race and campaign analyses. Of course, Aguirre knew where Williams lived because he contributed to his campaign. 

Solution: Come out with the secret. Disclose on the record at the start of the process where all incumbents live. It’s better than hiding or pretending that the commission is ignorant.

(See the related article from yesterday by John Hrabe, “CA GOP ‘Idiots’ Lose State Senate.”)

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