The Ripon Forum

Volume 45, No. 4

Fall 2011 Issue

California Dreamin’

By on August 14, 2014 with 0 Comments

Redistricting reform in the Golden State and the quest for the perfect map

by ERIC MCGHEE

emcgheerfCalifornia’s last redistricting in 2001 was a bipartisan gerrymander designed to protect incumbents of both parties. In response, California voters passed a pair of initiatives that handed the drawing of the districts to an independent commission. After a lengthy and highly open process, on August 15 the commission approved a final set of maps by wide margins. How did the commission do? Would the system be a good one for other states?

The new maps have certainly taken a lot of heat. There have been complaints from minority rights advocates that the plans do not do enough to promote minority representation, especially for Latinos. Many Republicans have also argued the maps violate important geographic criteria and are designed to benefit Democrats. An effort to qualify a referendum against the state Senate maps is moving forward, and a parallel effort recently attempted to overturn the congressional and state Senate maps in court.

 California’s last redistricting in 2001 was a bipartisan gerrymander designed to protect incumbents of both parties. In response, California voters passed a pair of initiatives that handed the drawing of the districts
to an independent commission.

However, though the maps are not perfect, they are better than the ones drawn in 2001 on a variety of quantifiable measures. The districts are far more compact — that is, closer to simple shapes like squares and circles. They split fewer cities (though not fewer counties). They do a better job of “nesting” – that is, placing two Assembly districts completely within one Senate district. And they increase the number of majority-minority districts for Latinos and draw the first majority Asian-American district in California history. These are all criteria the commission was required to consider, and the specific trade-offs the commission has made are certainly defensible.

The commission’s work is also defensible in terms of the partisan effects the commission was supposed to ignore. The Assembly plan is unlikely to produce many gains for either party. Meanwhile, the Senate plan is modestly better for the Democrats, but only for the 20 seats up for election in 2012. When the remaining 20 are contested in 2014, the new plan is no better or worse for Democrats than the old one. Part of the issue is that the current Senate districts already look good for Democrats: the party holds only safe seats, while Republicans hold at least three highly competitive ones. Republicans have avoided Democratic gains up to this point through skilled candidates and a little luck, not gerrymandered districts.

Democrats do better in the congressional plan, where they might win four more seats in a good year for their party. But these Democratic gains say more about the 2001 plan than the new one. Over the last 10 years, Democrats have gained vote share without any real gains in seat share, because there have been no competitive seats for them to win. The new plan offers those competitive seats, so Democrats will likely benefit.

Whether this new system is a good model for other states depends in part on one’s ultimate goal. More competition? The new plans are somewhat more competitive, but only modestly so. Greater moderation? Research has shown that redistricting is at best a modest cause of polarization, and strong partisans are often elected from competitive seats across the country.

 Whether this new system is a good model for other states depends in part on one’s ultimate goal.

However, the system might help temper the intense legal battles of recent decades. The U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal redistricting decisions in the 1960s effectively required a new redistricting plan after every census, forcing a partisan fight and giving the loser of that fight the tools to keep the issue alive in court. These legal cases often have legs because the redistricting process itself is so tainted: the state legislators and parties who stand to benefit from the lines draw the maps, and do so behind closed doors.

By contrast, California selected outsiders to serve on its commission and required roughly equal representation for each party. Once formed, the commission conducted its business publicly and held dozens of hearings across the state. This elaborate process may have leant the commission’s product extra credibility in court, as the California Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the legal case against the maps on October 26. The process might also put the plans on firmer political footing for a potential referendum, though that remains to be seen.

Still, the future of this reform rests on a knife’s edge. If a referendum is successful at invalidating the commission’s state Senate maps, then the reform may be seen as a failure. Moreover, even if all the maps survive, we have only seen the new process work once. Sophisticated political actors have surely learned from this first experience, and we should expect them to be better prepared to influence the process in the future.

Thus, it will be important for supporters of the reform to monitor it closely in coming decades. Eternal vigilance is the price of nonpartisanship.    RF

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Eric McGhee is a Policy Fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California.

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