State Issues

Politics ain’t beanbag, and not always fair

Poll workers were all alone when this photo was taken at Modesto Covenant Church.
Poll workers were all alone when this photo was taken at Modesto Covenant Church. The Modesto Bee

Anyone who harbors the quaint notion that high-stakes politics are rational, much less ethical, should read up on two terms: “gerrymandering” and “ballot harvesting.”

When Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and maintained it for three subsequent election cycles, Democrats complained loudly that it was the result of gerrymandering – drawing districts to favor one party – by GOP-controlled state legislatures.

The complaint was accurate. There had been a concerted effort by Republicans and allied groups to gain state legislative seats in hopes of influencing the redrawing of congressional districts, and it worked.

Now, Democratic leaders have become big fans of independent redistricting commissions such as California’s.

However, it should be noted that California’s Democratic leaders bitterly opposed the ballot measures that created and then expanded the state’s redistricting commission – and happily engaged in gerrymandering themselves when they could. After the 1980 census, the Legislature redrew legislative and congressional districts. Overseen by the late Congressman Phil Burton, Democrats shaped some districts so bizarrely that Burton called them “my contribution to modern art.”

Republicans challenged the gerrymander with a referendum, and voters voided the Democrats’ maps in 1982, but then-Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators simply enacted a slightly revised version just days before Brown ceded the governorship to Republican George Deukmejian.

Last year, Democrats flipped half of the GOP’s 14 congressional districts, including several in seemingly impregnable strongholds in Orange and San Diego counties. A major reason was “ballot harvesting,” which was legalized by legislation passed by a Democratic Legislature and signed by Brown in 2016.

Previously, a voter’s ballot could be delivered only personally or by a relative. The new law authorized “any person” to do it, thus allowing partisan operatives to help voters fill out their ballots and then personally deliver them to election authorities. Huge numbers of ballots in target districts were delivered at the last moment.

Orange County’s registrar of voters, Neal Kelley, told the San Francisco Chronicle the county “certainly had that going on here, with people dropping off maybe 100 or 200 ballots” and the county’s GOP chairman, Fred Whitaker, said the party’s losses were the “direct result of ballot harvesting allowed under California law for the first time.”

Republican laments about the effects of ballot harvesting were matched only by Democratic jubilation about what they had wrought with the 2016 legislation. However, while Democrats celebrate ballot harvesting in California, they are complaining that it unfairly and illegally helped Republicans eke out a very narrow victory in a hotly contested North Carolina district.

Republican Mark Harris seemingly defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes but Democrats claimed a campaign operative for Harris illegally helped a decisive number of voters fill out their ballots and then personally delivered them to election officials in Bladen County.

Harris and his operative, L. McCrae Dowless, deny the allegations but last Thursday Harris agreed to void the election and conduct a new vote. An election board that had been investigating the case quickly complied.

Both practices underscore an enduring axiom of politics: As with any competitive sport, changing the rules can alter the outcome, so who controls the rules is just as important as the skill of the players.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public interest journalism organization. Email: