ProPublica: The hidden hands in redistricting: Corporations and other powerful interestson September 25th, 2011 at 8:00 am
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 re-election 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.
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 Oiste, looking at one of the maps Fair Districts has touted as helping Latinos and African-Americans. Oiste 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.