In most states, the power to draw lines for political districts rests with legislators. In recent years, California voters have tried to make the process less political by taking it out of lawmakers’ hands. But not everyone is happy with how things are turning out.
To understand redistricting in California, consider this: Over a 10-year period beginning in 2000, there were 255 congressional races, and only one seat — that’s right, one seat — changed parties.
So in 2008 and 2010, voters approved two propositions to give the job of redrawing political district lines to a nonpartisan Citizens Redistricting Commission.
“It was created in response to the redistricting plan that was drawn 10 years ago, which was drawn by the Legislature, and everybody agreed was drawn to protect sitting incumbents,” says Eric McGhee, a redistricting guru at the Public Policy Institute of California.
The new Citizens Redistricting Commission comprised five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents. The commission held 34 public hearings and heard testimony from 2,700 people. In August 2011, new political district maps were unveiled at a news conference.
At the time, Vincent Barabba, then the chairman of the commission, said: “The maps that we adopted today did not consider incumbents, potential candidates and political party registration in drawing the districts.”
But if voters thought that the commission could take politics out of redistricting, they were wrong.
Just a few minutes later in that same news conference, a Republican commissioner, Michael Ward, said the new maps were “fundamentally flawed as a result of a tainted political process. This commission made decisions based on political motives.”
The new maps appeared to favor Democrats in races for the state Assembly, state Senate and Congress.
Democrats said the new district lines merely reflected demographic changes that already had shaded California blue.
The GOP eventually filed four legal challenges against the new district lines, but the courts rejected them all. Among their arguments, Republicans insisted that areas in California that were traditionally Republican strongholds had higher growth rates than Democratic districts and that should have produced more Republican seats.
But Barabba, also a Republican, didn’t buy it.
“The problem was, although the growth did take place in those areas, it was by people who were coming in, both Hispanics and Asians, who are less likely to vote on the Republican side of the ticket,” he said.
Barabba says if you want evidence that the commission didn’t favor Democrats, just look at the redrawn 30th Congressional District in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.
Thanks to redistricting and the end of partisan primaries, the race pitted two Democratic incumbents against each other — former political allies Howard Berman and Brad Sherman. Both congressmen had similar voting records. But their campaign was nasty and personal. One night before a shrieking college crowd, the candidates got nose-to-nose.
“You wanna get into this?” Sherman yelled as he grabbed Berman by the shoulder.
But after their theatrics, Sherman won that race largely because he had inherited many of the voters from his old district in the newly redrawn 30th.
By election time, the impact of the redistricting process was clear: Democrats won two-thirds majorities in the state Assembly and Senate. They also picked up four additional congressional seats.
For California Republicans, redistricting is still a bitter pill.
“The election results showed that the actual seats were too difficult for Republicans to win,” says former state Republican Party chief Tom Del Beccaro, “and you can make the argument that how they were drawn up was wrong, that commission process was corrupted. And I think the results of the election show that we should have done everything we could to fight for better lines.”
But increasing partisan competition was never part of the commission’s charge. Its job was to draw compact districts of equal population size, ensure minority representation and, if possible, not divide cities and counties.
The Public Policy Institute’s McGhee says voters shouldn’t be surprised with the way things turned out.
“In modern politics, Democrats and Republicans don’t tend to live in the same places. It’s hard to draw those competitive seats,” McGhee says. “So it’s not hard to see how somebody could be disappointed in the outcome. But I think if you had set your expectations in a realistic way, they actually probably exceeded what could be expected.”
The bottom line, says McGhee, is that the independent Citizens Redistricting Commission drew up new district lines in a process that was far more open to the public than when the job was done by lawmakers.