The Gristle


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

REDMAP: The subject of election rigging has come up in this political season, but the topic should be discussed in the past tense and the more salient conversation focused on rollback of rigging that has already occurred.

In 2008, jubilant Democrats took their eyes off the prize—the state legislatures that control redistricting following a population Census. As detailed in his alarming study of the Republican Party’s redrawing of the American political map across the country, political journalist David Daley uncovered the scheme known as redmap—the Redistricting Majority Project—that flooded state legislative races in 2010 with dark money. The flood of dark money arrived by way of Citizens United v. FEC, the fortuitously timed U.S. Supreme Court decision that tore away limits on political expenditures and eliminated reporting requirements for those expenditures. Awash with this cash, Republican operatives were able to seize control of state legislators in the 2010 “tea party rebellion” midterms, at the very moment when these states were redrawing their congressional and legislative boundaries, locking in a permanent Republican advantage through “safe” districts. In that year, the GOP captured 63 seats in the House of Representatives and 680 new seats in the state legislatures and—in Daley’s words—“turned a mid-term disaster for Democrats into legislative majorities so unbreakable, so impregnable, that none of the outcomes are in doubt until after the 2020 Census.”

The idea behind redmap, Daley documents, was to hit the Democrats at their weakest point. In several state legislatures, Democratic majorities were thin. Republicans commissioned polls, brought in high-powered consultants and flooded out-of-the-way districts with ads, making it possible to flip enough seats to take charge of them. Then, when it came time to draw new lines, the GOP would be in control.

The tactics, Daley notes, are part of an old tradition of sabotage and dirty tricks in American politics known as “ratfucking.”

Most states aren’t as fortunate as Washington, which assigns an independent Redistricting Commission to periodically redraw legislative boundaries. Similarly, many states are not as lucky as Washington, which has a Public Disclosure Commission, authorized under state law to shed sunshine on dark money, and to investigate and enforce violations in election laws. Both commissions are instruments originally created by Washington voters.

The PDC met last week to conclude such an enforcement effort, preparing to hand out penalties related to a similar redmap scheme cooked up to confer a permanent conservative advantage in Whatcom County elections. As a result of the PDC investigation into Case 1217, we now have a much more detailed, documented understanding of the timing and actors who attempted to seize permanent control of elections through Charter Review.

Charter Review is an analogously weak moment in democratic governance, where an obscure off-year election with reduced voter interest and minuscule turnout can imbue a cloistered review commission with the power to tinker with the county’s foundational governing documents—essentially, its constitution.

Elected by coal money, the commission’s empowered conservative majority placed on the 2015 ballot Proposition 1, which proposed district-only voting in County Council elections. Weakened through partition, voters in progressive districts under this scheme would have no direct access to the majority of elected representatives on Council—a majority of the Council would be forever beyond reach of two-thirds of county voters. Commissioners also put forward Propositions 2 and 3, which would lock out through supermajority requirements any ability to change the Charter in the future. Performing some brilliant political jiu-jistu, County Council also gave voters another choice on their ballot: More districts, to shave off the most corrosive edges of district-only voting, Proposition 9.

All these propositions passed in 2015, some in collision with others. Propositions 1 and 9 are not in collision: We’re now a district-only county with five voting districts.

As detailed in the PDC complaint, an entity formed known as Clear Ballot Choices to ram home support for district-only voting while trying to shank five-district voting. Clear Ballot Choices was a political action committee formed by Pacific International Terminals LLC, the sponsor of the Gateway Pacific Terminal coal pier project proposed at Cherry Point. Through sly gerrymandering, ratfucking, PIT would lock in a Council favorable to the review of their coal pier.

“Through the post-election period ending on November 30, 2015, Clear Ballot Choices raised $66,549 and spent $68,259” in pursuit of these aims, the PDC disclosed in their report. Nearly all the money was contributed by PIT.

Clear Ballot Choices covertly employed Tony Larson, director of the Whatcom Business Alliance and publisher of Business Pulse. Tea Party Tony was elected to the Whatcom County Council in a 2010 special election; he was given the boot the following year.

As noted in the PDC investigation, Larson recruited the committee’s official treasurer; obtained possession of monetary contributions to Clear Ballot Choices, and deposited all contributions in the committee’s campaign depository; conducted meetings with vendors, without the involvement of the committee’s registered officers; received invoices from vendors for payment; and communicated contribution and expenditure information to Clear Ballot Choices’ treasurer for reporting purposes, without sharing similar information with the committee’s other registered officers. He also controlled Clear Ballot Choices’ checkbook and made payments to vendors. Under the law, this last duty is specifically reserved for a political committee’s registered treasurer or deputy treasurer. In short, with his detailed knowledge of County Council methods and procedures Larson ran the PIT’s extensive political ground game against representative democracy, but at no point was Larson ever publicly registered as an officer or responsible leader for the committee. He ran the game sub rosa.

These covert operations were not disputed in a negotiated settlement with PIT proposed by PDC enforcement officers last week. A suggested fine was imposed on Clear Ballot Choices, the maximum penalty based on the laws currently in place at the time of the violation. The settlement agreement is scheduled to be concluded at a meeting of the full Public Disclosure Commission later this year.

Under the aegis of “economic development and job creation,” Whatcom Business Alliance continues to ratfuck Council’s deliberations on energy exports, sending a letter scolding Council’s temporary halt on fossil fuel export projects while they work through its policy details, and joining other conservative groups in a legal challenge of the Comprehensive Plan update in an effort to tip it over.

The takeaway in this breathless week before elections is, these efforts cannot succeed in a healthy democracy with an alert public involved in policy matters. Indeed, subverting democracy is the only way they can succeed. Vote.

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