Redistricting reform may be meaningless in terms of changing California's broken governance system. But it sure is entertaining.
A new report from the investigative journalism organization ProPublica has touched off a political controversy. ProPublica showed that leading Democrats secretly tried to influence the citizens' redistricting commission that drew the new maps -- using a phone San Joaquin Valley front group and the testimony of citizens who didn't disclose they were doing the party's bidding.
This news is unsurprising. Redistricting is a political process -- despite reformers' efforts to make it non-political -- and it's not news that Democrats, and others, were trying everything they could to influence the commission.
However, the reaction to the report, from all corners, has been over-the-top, with nearly every participant engaging in phony outrage. (if only California had a tax on phony outrage -- we could balance the budget).
Let's examine the phoniness:
-ProPublica: The organization's reporting was well done, and the piece is well-written. But unfortunately, the story was dressed up in a kind of outrage that suggested Democrats did something wrong. They didn't. They did something political. Which is what political parties do. What ProPublica did was show that California reformers overpromised--and continue to oversell--the idea and value of creating a non-political process for redistricting. But most thoughtful people understood that already.
-Republicans: The state Republcan party chairman said the report represented nothing less than "vindication" and demanded investigation of the commission. Oh, please. The party had supported a referendum of the state senate maps (though not the Congressional maps--which were the focus of the ProPublica report), and the chairman had alleged that the commission favored Democrats. But there's no basis for investigation and no reason for vindication. The Republicans did this to themselves. They backed the redistricting commission reform because they thought it favored them; it didn't, which is less than vindication. And the referendum still has little chance of sucess either legally or politically; even if the referendum were to prevail, there's no guarantee that new, judicially-drawn districts would be any better for Republicans. This is why the referendum remains a complete waste of time and money for a party that needs to focus its resources on rebuilding its numbers and embracing political reform that gives it a real chance of competing for control of the legislature.
-Democrats: Democratic leaders have been so over the top in denying their role in trying to game the commission -- and ProPublica has them dead to rights on this -- that they may give the story more life. Instead of denials, Democrats should admit what they did and explain that they would have been negligent not to push every button they could at the commission. Instead, State Democratic Chairman John Burton put out a statement with Nixonian obfuscation in which he said he never met any redistricting commissioners and didn't know what they looked like (a denial of an allegation that the story never made -- the point of ProPublica report was that the party used secrecy and proxies to influence the commission). It also slammed the ProPublica report as somehow biased without showing one example of bias or denying a single fact in the story. Word to the Democratic wise: either shut up, or own it.
-The commission itself: Redistricting commissioners and their spokesman also have lashed out at ProPublica in press reports for not giving them a chance to comment, even though it turns out that redistricting commissioners were interviewed by ProPublica. The commission also claims it was open--which is at once true (they had a lot of hearings) and misleading. The commission also was prickly and slow to comment in response to substantive challenges, cut back on public hearings, and broke a promise to release more provisional maps later in the process. Now they must sleep in the bed they made.
All sides in this controversy share not only a talent for phony outrage -- but also a pretense. That pretense is that the redistricting commission's maps matter. The truth is they don't matter much at all. The maps don't much change the partisan make-up of the state; yes the Democrats may gain slightly in Congress and the state senate, but only a handful of seats if any.
The partisan make-up of California's legislature and Congressional delegations are pre-determined -- not by elections or redistricting commissions but by the political geography of the state. Almost all districts belong to one party or another because there are few places in California that are evenly split among the parties.
Creating real competition would require bigger reforms -- including moving away from single-member legislative districts, expanding the number of members of the legislature, and using proportional representation. The redistricting commission, and the controversy that surrounds it, is a black hole, sucking up the time and money and political energy that should be devoted to fixing the system.