This story first appeared on the ProPublica website.
This spring, a group of California Democrats gathered at a modern, airy office building just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The meeting was House members only—no aides allowed—and the mission was seemingly impossible.
In previous years, the party had used its perennial control of California's state Legislature to draw district maps that protected Democratic incumbents. But in 2010, California voters put redistricting in the hands of a citizens' commission where decisions would be guided by public testimony and open debate.
The question facing House Democrats as they met to contemplate the state's new realities was delicate: How could they influence an avowedly nonpartisan process? Alexis Marks, a House aide who invited members to the meeting, warned the representatives that secrecy was paramount. "Never say anything AT ALL about redistricting—no speculation, no predictions, NOTHING," Marks wrote in an email. "Anything can come back to haunt you."
In the weeks that followed, party leaders came up with a plan. Working with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—a national arm of the party that provides money and support to Democratic candidates—members were told to begin "strategizing about potential future district lines," according to another email.
The citizens' commission had pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players. To get around that, Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party's interests.
When they appeared before the commission, those groups identified themselves as ordinary Californians and did not disclose their ties to the party. One woman who purported to represent the Asian community of the San Gabriel Valley was actually a lobbyist who grew up in rural Idaho, and lives in Sacramento.
In one instance, party operatives invented a local group to advocate for the Democrats' map.
California's Democratic representatives got much of what they wanted from the 2010 redistricting cycle, especially in the northern part of the state. "Every member of the Northern California Democratic Caucus has a ticket back to DC," said one enthusiastic memo written as the process was winding down. "This is a huge accomplishment that should be celebrated by advocates throughout the region."
Statewide, Democrats had been expected to gain at most a seat or two as a result of redistricting. But an internal party projection says that the Democrats will likely pick up six or seven seats in a state where the party's voter registrations have grown only marginally.
"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."
As part of a national look at redistricting, ProPublica reconstructed the Democrats' stealth success in California, drawing on internal memos, emails, interviews with participants and map analysis. What emerges is a portrait of skilled political professionals armed with modern mapping software and detailed voter information who managed to replicate the results of the smoked-filled rooms of old.
The losers in this once-a-decade reshaping of the electoral map, experts say, were the state's voters. The intent of the citizens' commission was to directly link a lawmaker's political fate to the will of his or her constituents. But as ProPublica's review makes clear, Democratic incumbents are once again insulated from the will of the electorate.
Democrats acknowledge that they faced a challenge in getting the districts they wanted in densely populated, ethnically diverse Southern California. The citizen commission initially proposed districts that would have endangered the political futures of several Democratic incumbents. Fighting back, some Democrats gathered in Washington and discussed alternatives. These sessions were sometimes heated.
"There was horse-trading throughout the process," said one senior Democratic aide.
The revised districts were then presented to the commission by plausible-sounding witnesses who had personal ties to Democrats but did not disclose them.
Commissioners declined to discuss the details of specific districts, citing ongoing litigation. But several said in interviews that while they were aware of some attempts to mislead them, they felt they had defused the most egregious attempts.
"When you've got so many people reporting to you or making comments to you, some of them are going to be political shills," said commissioner Stanley Forbes, a farmer and bookstore owner. "We just had to do the best we could in determining what was for real and what wasn't."
Democrats acknowledge the meetings described in the emails, but said the gatherings "centered on" informing members about the process. In a statement to ProPublica, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, head of California's delegation, said that members, "as citizens of the state of California, were well within their rights to make comments and ensure that voices from communities of interest within their neighborhoods were heard by the Commission."
"The final product voted on by the Commission was entirely out of the hands of the Members," said Lofgren. "They, like any other Californian, were able to comment but had no control over the process."
"At no time did the Delegation draw up a statewide map," Lofgren said. (Read Lofgren's full statement.)
California's Republicans were hardly a factor. The national GOP stayed largely on the sidelines, and individual Republicans had limited success influencing the commission.
"Republicans didn't really do anything," said Johnson. "They were late to the party, and essentially non-entities in the redistricting process."
Fed-up voters create a commission
The once-a-decade redistricting process is supposed to ensure that every citizen's vote counts equally.
In reality, politicians and parties working to advance their own interests often draw lines that make an individual's vote count less. They create districts dominated by one party or political viewpoint, protecting some candidates (typically incumbents) while dooming others. They can empower a community by grouping its voters in a single district, or disenfranchise it by zigging the lines just so.
Over the decades, few party bosses were better at protecting incumbents than California's Democrats. No Democratic incumbent has lost a Congressional election in the nation's most populous state since 2000.
As they drew the lines each decade, California's party bosses worked in secret. But the oddly shaped districts that emerged from those sessions were visible for all to see. Bruce Cain, a legendary mapmaker who now heads the University of California's Washington center, once drew an improbable-looking state assembly district that could not be traversed by car. (It crossed several impassable mountains.)
Cain proudly told the story of the district, which was set up for one of the governor's friends. Cain said he justified the odd shape by saying it pulled together the state's largest population of endangered condors. "It wasn't legitimate on any level," Cain recalled.