Analysis

CA120: The redistricting commission, lines and political pressure

The House of Representatives, which may wind up with new members following the 2020 redistricting. (Photo: House of Representatives)

Ed’s Note: This is Part 2 of our three-part series on California redistricting. Part 3 will appear tomorrow. To see Part 1, click here.

California’s independent Citizens Redistricting Commission was established by two ballot measures in 2008 and 2010, following several unsuccessful pushes by Republicans who saw themselves as perpetually sidelined when it came to drawing the state’s political boundaries.

Success came when they were joined by a coalition of non-partisan groups and deep-pocket Silicon Valley funders, who saw the commission as a part of overall reforms, like the creation of an open primary. They believed independent redistricting would moderate politics, reduce the control exerted by the two major political parties and give more voice to independent candidates.

The last redraw satisfied a bit of political schadenfreude on the part of the public, media and commissioners. And the prospect of another disruptive redistricting like we saw in 2011 is already giving incumbents nightmares.

Debate continues about whether it accomplished those goals. But one thing is for sure: The first commission created chaos for dozens of lawmakers in a process that is already keeping current incumbents up at night.

The first redistricting commission successfully drew new lines without considering partisanship and incumbent residency, while getting advice from thousands of individuals and organizations. The final product was a set of district boundaries that have been largely praised for achieving basic redistricting goals, but which were catastrophic for many incumbents.

Out of the 153 legislative and congressional incumbents holding office in 2011, 64 were harmed by the new maps by either being drawn out of their seats, having their electoral base moved to another district, or having another incumbent drawn into their seat.

Much of the pressure of this redistricting was alleviated by the terming-out of legislators, retirements of more than a dozen members of Congress, and some artful (or shameful, depending on your perspective) changing of official residences so legislators could run for an adjacent district.

Even with several legislators and members of Congress adjusting to the new lines, there were a couple of big matchups of incumbents in the post-redistricting election cycle, most notably the Howard Berman (D)- vs.-Brad Sherman (D) blockbuster. That no-holds-barred battle happened after the redistricting commission took population from each of their seats to create a new Latino district in the San Fernando Valley.

The last redraw satisfied a bit of political schadenfreude on the part of the public, media and commissioners. And the prospect of another disruptive redistricting like we saw in 2011 is already giving incumbents nightmares.

A shift in Culture
As the original Citizen’s Redistricting Commission members were seated, a culture developed. While not an express part of their mission, the members understood that their most important job was wresting the line drawing process away from the corruption and cronyism of the previous state legislative drawn process.

It was like the existing lines themselves were the enemy.

With a chip on their shoulder, the commissioners saw their job as redoing, re-creating, cleaning-up and finally giving credibility to the redistricting process – and the fastest way to do that was to throw away the existing maps and never look back.

The suggestion that “this is how the lines currently look,” could be treated as an endorsement, not an indictment.

This culture meant that advocates couldn’t go to the commission and effectively argue that “this is the way the district has always been” as that was akin to saying “this is the set of lines drawn by politicians, for politicians.”

Contrast that with the likely starting point for the second commission.

The next members probably won’t have the same chip on their shoulder and may give considerable deference to the initial commission’s work. They likely will be trained or even recruited by commission members and the staff of the original commission. That means they, plus the media, will start out with a high regard for the existing maps.

With access to the prior commission and staff who have successfully conducted a public redistricting process, they will have a big head start. And if there is a way to keep a district relatively unchanged, that could be the preferred choice of a body that respects the prior line-drawing process.

The suggestion that “this is how the lines currently look,” could be treated as an endorsement, not an indictment.

This, in turn, suggests that changes to district boundaries may be less acute than during the last redraw and driven primarily by shifts in population and changes in the law, rather than a desire to “blow up the boxes.”

But then you would have to start making tough decisions as you attempt to draw equal population districts in Sacramento County and the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Where do we start?
Drawing districts is almost like lining up dominoes in a large elaborate design. The placement of one helps define a range of possibilities for the next one and the one after that, and so on. Change your starting position, and your options change.

Redistricting is similar.

The redrawing of districts in 2011 had one major procedural hurdle. At the time, there were four counties that were subject to Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act.

If you were to start drawing lines for congressional districts on a blank California map, beginning in the north-western most corner of the state, you could draw ideal districts for the first few seats encompassing Humboldt County, Redding and perhaps Santa Rosa and Marin County.

But then you would have to start making tough decisions as you attempt to draw equal population districts in Sacramento County and the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Alternatively, if you started by drawing in the middle of Sacramento and then went on from there, you might find yourself with very sensible maps in Sacramento, Yolo and Solano counties, but end up with a district that splits Humboldt County in half, one that crosses the Golden Gate bridge, or some other strange set of lines forced by the population rules and geographic realities of the state.

Tough decisions were pushed out from there, such as whether district lines should cross the Bay Bridge, or if San Diego and Imperial Counties should be connected along the Mexican border.

The redrawing of districts in 2011 had one major procedural hurdle. At the time, there were four counties that were subject to Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act. This meant that districts that overlapped Yuba, Monterey, Merced and Kings counties required pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice. The rules stated that the Section 5 districts couldn’t be “retrogressed” in a way that weakened the voting power of a protected minority.

Unfortunately, the Department of Justice couldn’t simply tell the California commission what it wanted to see. The commission had to complete its process and submit the plans with no guarantees that they would be ultimately approved.

If the plans were rejected, the commission would have no recourse, because there was nothing in the statute that allowed the commission to reconvene and adopt new lines, or start again. The job would be given to the courts, or, arguably, the Legislature could regain control of the process.

Those doing the redistricting quickly realized the real-world impact of this pre-clearance requirement.

With the commission extremely concerned about having its plans rejected, the panel was forced to start drawing lines in the middle of the state where three of these four counties were closely packed together. This was the best way to ensure that the districts would get their pre-clearance, and would stand.

To use the dominoes analogy, the fear of pre-clearance forced the commission put its first dominoes down in the middle of the room and then start building out from there.

Districts within the Central Valley and Central Coast were drawn first and with the greatest care to ensure no ethnic populations were being retrogressed. Tough decisions were pushed out from there, such as whether district lines should cross the Bay Bridge, or if San Diego and Imperial Counties should be connected along the Mexican border. The commission was influenced by the limited range of options after the center of the state had been drawn.

Skip ahead ten years and the “Stockton Finger” has become a poster child for what was wrong with the pre-commission process.

In the Congressional plan, the best example of this is probably Merced County.

In 2001 incumbent Gary Condit went from being untouchable to the middle of a murder/sex scandal. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the “D-Triple-C,” recruited Assemblymember Dennis Cardoza to take out Condit and try to hold the seat.

However, doing so meant drawing a snaking district from Merced all the way to Stockton. The result, which became known as the “Stockton Finger,” boosted not only the number of Democrats in the seat, but also the number of Latinos and African-Americans.

Skip ahead ten years and the “Stockton Finger” has become a poster child for what was wrong with the pre-commission process.

However, the Commission members had a problem. To avoid “retrogressing,” they only had two options: Keep the “finger” – a non-starter — or connect Merced to portions of the city of Fresno.

As a result, every other district in the Central Valley had to be drawn around the Commission’s response to the previous map, which was flipping them the proverbial bird.

The removal of this pre-clearance requirement means that the next commission will be able to draw maps without being pressured to draw from the middle of the state outward. It also means that the federal VRA will largely only come into play where a majority-minority district can be drawn, and they won’t need to be matching ethnic populations in districts which don’t meet this threshold simply to comply with a federal pre-clearance rule.

This sets the stage for the 2021 redistricting. In Part 3, we will dive into the demographics and who are the likely winners and losers.

Ed’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a veteran political strategist and a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the founder of the CA120 column and the vice president of Political Data, which markets information to campaigns in both major parties.

 

 


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