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How Dark Money Is Redrawing the Political Map

Corporations and other big donors are spending huge sums to influence the redistricting process. Is your state next?

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Florida's 3rd Congressional District, represented by Democrat Corrinne Brown

This story first appeared on the ProPublica website.

Their names suggest selfless dedication to democracy. Fair Districts Mass. Protect Your Vote. The Center for a Better New Jersey. And their stated goals are unarguable: In the partisan fight to redraw congressional districts, states should stick to the principle of one person, one vote.

But a ProPublica investigation has found that these groups and others are being quietly bankrolled by corporations, unions, and other special interests. Their main interest in the once-a-decade political fight over redistricting is not to help voters in the communities they claim to represent but mainly to improve the prospects of their political allies or to harm their enemies.

The number of these purportedly independent redistricting groups is rising, but their ties remain murky. Contributions to such groups are not limited by campaign finance laws, and most states allow them to take unlimited amounts of money without disclosing the source.

Today's story is the first chapter in an in-depth examination of how powerful players are turning to increasingly sophisticated tools and techniques to game the redistricting process, with voters ultimately losing.

For special interests, there's a huge potential payoff from investing in such efforts.

"Reshaping a map is very powerful" for donors, said Spencer Kimball, a political consultant who is executive director of Boston-based Fair Districts Mass. "It's a big opportunity to have influence at the state level and the congressional level not one race at a time but for 10 years."

Skillful redistricting can, of course, help create Republican or Democratic districts, but it can also grace incumbents with virtually guaranteed reelection or leave them with nearly no chance at all. In the process, it can also create seats almost certain to be held by minorities or break those same groups apart, ensuring that they have almost no voice.

But it's not cheap, and that's where corporations and other outside interests come in. They can provide the cash for voter data, mapping consultants, and lobbyists to influence state legislators, who are in charge of redistricting in most states. Outside interests can also fund the inevitable lawsuits that contest nearly every state's redistricting plan after it is unveiled.

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In Minnesota, for instance, the Republicans' legal efforts to influence redistricting are being financed through a group called Minnesotans for a Fair Redistricting.

Fair Redistricting describes itself as independent, but it has much of its leadership in common with the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a group with ties to the political empire of the Koch brothers, industrialists from Kansas who've spent millions funding conservative causes. The head of the Freedom Foundation, Annette Meeks, told ProPublica she has "no involvement" with Fair Redistricting. But both organizations' tax filings list the same address: Meeks' home address.

Fair Redistricting is registered under the name of her husband, Jack Meeks, who is also on the board of the Freedom Foundation. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Who is actually paying for Fair Redistricting's lawsuit and lawyers? And what district lines are they pushing for? The group doesn't have to say and has so far kept its finances and plans under wraps. Annette Meeks did not respond to questions about the group's donors or its ties to the Koch brothers, but she said the group complies with all legal filing requirements. But the group's public tax filings contain no information on its contributors.

Fair Districts Mass, which says it's advocating better representation of minorities in and around Boston, is another window into how money can move through the system. The group describes itself as "citizen-funded." But it also sought permission from state election officials for unlimited corporate funding. Donations "can include corporate contributions," the group's website announces. "Better yet," the site notes, "we are not required to file reports regarding donations or expenditures."

The group says its proposed maps would lead to better representation of Latinos and African Americans.

"Minorities are very underrepresented in Massachusetts politics," said Kimball, the group's executive director. "We're here to change that."

But minority groups say Fair Districts' proposed maps would not likely help them. (See our interactive feature showing the group's maps and our analysis.)

"I don't see a person of color getting elected in this district, if that's the goal," said Alejandra St. Guillen, executive director of Oíste, looking at one of the maps Fair Districts has touted as helping Latinos and African Americans. Oíste has been fighting for increased Latino representation and civic participation in the state for more than a decade.

"Even though the numbers might look as if that might be favorable to communities of color," St. Guillen said, "if you look at voting patterns, it actually wouldn't be."

Others from Massachusetts have said the proposals made by Fair Districts Mass wouldn't help them at all. At a town hall meeting in Lynn, which would be cut out of its historic district along Boston's North Shore by the proposal, labor unions, the city's chamber of commerce, and politicians from both parties converged on the town hall, urging that the board not adopt a plan that would carve out Lynn.

Lynn's Latino business owners are "very proud to be a part of the North Shore," said Frances Martinez, executive director of the North Shore Latino Business Association. "Our business owners decided to come here because they know this is a place to stay and grow for their families. Please keep the district together."

What Fair Districts' proposals would do is hurt the traditional pro-labor and Democratic incumbents in the area. For instance, Lynn's notably pro-union congressman, John Tierney, would effectively be drawn out of a seat—a finding included in the group's own research.

Fair Districts can raise unlimited, undisclosed cash for its efforts, thanks to an innovative argument it made to state election officials.

This strategy had its roots in a lesson learned 20 years ago by a Republican redistricting guru named Dan Winslow. During the 1990 redistricting cycle, Winslow twice sought permission from state election officials for a group called the Republican Redistricting Committee to accept unlimited corporate donations without having to disclose them.

At the time, Winslow argued that the group didn't have specific political aims and would also provide redistricting resources to minority groups.

Each time, the board refused to exempt the organization from campaign finance laws on the grounds that a group with "Republican" in its name and Republican politicians as leaders could not credibly claim to be independent.

Last year, a lawyer in Winslow's firm filed an almost identical request to accept unlimited corporate donations, but this time for a group that left "Republican" out of its name. The state agreed to his request. The group he was filing for? Fair Districts Mass.

Winslow, now a Republican state representative and legal adviser to Fair Districts, said the group has no partisan agenda.

"It's not about shifting Massachusetts from Democrat to Republican," Winslow said. "It creates an opportunity for challenges, for challengers to challenge the status quo."

Fair Districts Mass Chairman Jack Robinson has run unsuccessfully for Congress three times as a Republican. Last year, when he announced the formation of Fair Districts, he said he was changing his registration to independent.

Robinson said that change was important to Fair Districts' "unique" ability to accept undisclosed corporate donations.

"In order to show that we are really nonpartisan, I decided to become an independent," Robinson said.

Robinson also said the lack of disclosure has benefits.

"This is a very political process," he said. "If you're running a company in Newton, Mass., where Barney Frank is, and you want to donate to us, and our plan says Barney Frank has to run against another congressman, I could understand why people would not want to disclose their donations." Frank is, of course, a powerful Democratic congressman.

The national Democratic and Republican parties are also working to limit disclosures about fundraising for redistricting. Both parties have raised and spent tens of millions of dollars on redistricting through their traditional conduits of money into state politics, the Republican State Leadership Committee and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. And both have been pushing to keep increasing parts of those efforts exempt from disclosure requirements.

Last year, the National Democratic Redistricting Trust sought and was granted permission by the Federal Election Commission to allow members of Congress to solicit unlimited, undisclosed donations for the trust. The group, set up to fund lawsuits that inevitably spring up during redistricting fights, argued that redistricting is not a primarily political activity. Legislators doing the same fundraising, but directly for their parties, would be violating McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws. The trust is currently funding the Democratic legal response to Minnesotans for a Fair Redistricting.

The GOP formed its own opaque group dedicated to redistricting. Making America's Promise Secure, which was headed by prominent Republicans Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott, was able to secure 501(c)4 status from the IRS as a "social welfare" organization—the same status granted Disabled American Veterans and the Lumberjack World Championships Foundation. Groups with that status do not have to disclose donors or how they spend money. And there is no limit on how much individual donors can contribute.

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