…in California, we’ll be watching to see what happens when you take largely inexperienced citizens, require them to discuss and debate their choices in public hearings, and then ask them to produce political maps that can pass the muster of both the law and public opinion.
   –John Myers

Click on one of the links on this GovTrack page retrieving delineations of California congressional districts, and there’s a good chance you’ll be staring at the notorious “squiggly lines” that look more suitable to a Rorschach test than to any logical geographical grouping of voters.

Congressional District 3, shaped a little like a pterodactyl

That’s because the process of congressional redistricting, also called reapportionment, has functioned largely as a means of protecting the interests of whichever state political party is in power. After every census, state legislators draw up the new boundary lines of each district. In doing so, they have the power to lump together different populations that may share no other commonality than voting patterns helpful to the majority party’s nominee.

In California, however, the recent passage of Proposition 20 completes the transfer of redistricting power from the political parties to an ostensibly non-partisan commission.
The new system is unique among all state redistricting plans, so I asked John Myers, KQED’s resident government expert, about the potential effects on California’s political landscape…

Can you give me a quick history of redistricting, and how incumbents have been traditionally protected via gerrymandering?

Redistricting is the process of drawing political & governmental boundaries. While it happens on the local level in some California communities for things like transit and community college districts, the focus has been on statewide redistricting — districts for the state Legislature, state Board of Equalization, and the U.S. House of Representatives that are drawn every 10 years once new Census data is finalized.

The practice of “gerrymandering,” which generically means drawing maps to benefit someone other than the public, is as old as the country itself.

California’s own history with redistricting has been, in a word, complicated. Like many states, our maps have been drawn by the Legislature and approved by the governor. But three of the last four redistricting efforts were so controversial that they landed either in the courts (1970s, 1990s) or on the ballot (1980s). The most recent maps, drawn by the Legislature and approved by then Gov. Gray Davis in 2001, were the impetus for reformers to strip the power of redistricting completely from legislators — first in 2008 (Proposition 11) and then, additionally, on November 2 (Proposition 20).

What did Proposition 20 do? What criteria are the new redistricting commission required to consider and what criteria are they explicitly prohibited from considering?

Prop 20 gives the power of drawing California’s congressional districts to the new Citizens Redistricting Commission — a panel that’s just now convening and was created by 2008’s Prop 11 to draw legislative and state Board of Equalization districts.

As for criteria, the commission will have to follow legal requirements about equal population and protection of minority voting rights. (The latter is especially important in some parts of California with historical cases of voting rights discrimination). After that, political districts will need to be — to the extent possible — geographically contiguous and compact, thus avoiding the oft-criticized “squiggly” districts.

Prop 20 enhanced one of the commission’s marching orders: drawing political districts with an eye towards what are called “communities of interest.” This will be an especially interesting part of the process, as the term is defined differently in states across the country and, in the minds of some experts, is more art than science.

The only real criteria that the new citizens commission can NOT take into consideration are the residences of politicians (including incumbents) and the relative proportions of political parties. It’s worth noting that some defenders of the status quo may consider a lawsuit challenging the commission on the former — arguing that if two incumbents are lumped into a single political district, some voters will be denied their rights to vote for the person they desire. But of course, redistricting almost always produces lawsuits of some sort.

Who is on the commission? How were they chosen?

The commission will be made up of 14 men and women — 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans, 4 citizens from other parties/independents. Last week, the first 8 commissioners were picked at random by the California State Auditor from the final applicant pool (the vetting process has been going on all year); soon, those 8 commissioners will choose 6 more from the applicant pool… then it’s on to picking staff, etc. and then the map drawing will begin. I should note the timeline for drawing maps will be pretty tight; the final census data won’t arrive until April 1 and yet all the maps — 174 districts in all — must be drawn by August 15.

How might this new procedure impact California’s House delegation? Who do you think is most endangered?

It all depends on how you look at things. The chances of dramatic changes in party representation are almost non-existent. Democrats are California’s dominant party, and no redistricting map will lead to Republicans winning the balance of the state’s congressional seats. But what might change — and thus, the angst from politicians — is who those members of Congress are. For example, there’s long been a feeling that — were it not for the 2001 effort to protect incumbents — some Los Angeles area Democratic incumbents would have been challenged, and lost, due to the rapid growth in the Latino community. The gerrymandered LA districts seemed to specifically deny the existence of at least one so-called “minority majority” congressional district in the city.

Some are also theorizing that Republicans may suffer more than Democrats, given how many more Democratic voters there are than Republican voters these days in California.

What other public offices will be affected by the change?

All 120 legislative districts (80 in the Assembly, 40 in the state Senate) will be redrawn, as will the four statewide Board of Equalization districts. It’s worth noting that my reporting over the years has found that what you will NOT see from this process is a significant number of new competitive districts between Democrats and Republicans. The reality is that Californians have self-segregated themselves so much that, say, you can’t draw competitive districts in most of the Bay Area. But the key, say reformers, is that the new commission will be 100% transparent… so that at least everyone knows deals weren’t cut behind closed doors.

Are any other states looking at California as a model for changing their own methods of drawing districts?

As the process begins, California becomes one of only a handful of states with truly independent redistricting commissions. But even so, ours is unique; no other commission is picked the way ours is, and few others have been given as detailed marching orders as ours.

In 2011, much of the nation will be focused on whether shady backroom deals are being cut when it comes to redistricting; in California, we’ll be watching to see what happens when you take largely inexperienced citizens, require them to discuss and debate their choices in public hearings, and then ask them to produce political maps that can pass the muster of both the law and public opinion.

John Myers: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About California Redistricting 23 November,2010Jon Brooks


Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the host and editor of KQED’s health and technology blog, Future of You. He is the former editor of KQED’s daily news blog, News Fix. A veteran blogger, he previously worked for Yahoo! in various news writing and editing roles. He was also the editor of EconomyBeat.org, which documented user-generated content about the financial crisis and recession. Jon is also a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S. He has written about film for his own blog and studied film at Boston University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor