GOP option: Nest state Senate districts in Assembly maps

What do birds, new moms and the Republicans challenging the new state Senate district maps in court have in common?

They all think nesting is a great option.

According to Tony Quinn, a GOP political consultant and special witness for the Republicans challenging the maps, they’ve opened up an old-fashioned option for settling their legal challenge to the new Senate maps: nest the Senate districts into the Assembly maps produced by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. The lawsuit is part of a larger effort that also includes a proposed voter referendum that would reject the maps the commission drew for the Assembly. Quinn said that he is not receiving any pay for his role in the case.

Nesting is a term for matching up political districts — in this case, nesting two Assembly districts within each Senate district. This works because there are half as many Senators, 40, as Assembly members, 80, so the districts fit together in a neat 2-1 ratio.

This would satisfy Republicans, Quinn said, because they think the Senate maps are biased while the Assembly maps are fair.

“It creates an automatic two-thirds majority for Democrats in the Senate, which is not the case with the Assembly maps,” Quinn said. “There’s a fundamental difference between the Senate plan and the Assembly plan. We’re giving the courts an option, simply nest the uncontested Assembly seats.”

There would still be the issue of which sets of two Assembly districts would get lumped together — but the Republicans contend that it would still be far easier than drawing entirely new maps.

But Paul Mitchell, director of his own public affairs firm and the publisher of The Redistricting Report, said he didn’t think retroactive nesting would be legal.

“When you nest districts that weren’t intent to be nested, you end up with weird anomalies,” Mitchell said.

Some of those anomalies could end up violating the Voting Rights Act or causing other problems. A typical example could come in an area like Los Angeles, Mitchell said, where you had two Assembly districts – one intended to protect a Latino community of interest, next to a district where some Latinos were excluded for the same purpose. In other words, these Senate districts may not do a very good job protecting minority interests.

Mitchell also said he thought the GOP lawsuit was likely to fail. Challenges to district maps are usually successful only when plaintiffs can show an intent to marginalize a particular group, he said.

“I’m not a Commission employee or a paid Commission apologist, but the work that was done seems to have been done in a process that was gold-plated,” Mitchell said.

The task of drawing the districts was taken away from politicians and entrusted to a 14-member commission that included five Democrats, five Republicans and four decline-to-state voters.

The lawsuit was filed by Julie Vandermost — the same person who authored a proposed referendum that would do away with the congressional maps the commission produced. On Tuesday, Capitol Weekly reported that the Congressional maps effort would most likely be dropped. Supporters of that effort had yet to create an official committee or gather any money.

The lawsuit challenges 11 of the 40 districts, citing numerous grounds. Many of these are geographic. The suit says the commission failed to make compact districts, and often ignored geography and city and county lines.

Quinn noted that the Sacramento area comprised basically 1.5 Senate districts, while the nearby Bay Area would represent nine. The Rose Institute, a redistricting think tank at Claremont McKenna College, is not a party to the lawsuit. Quinn sits on the institute’s board of governors.

Yet the Sacramento area got split into a half-dozen Senate districts, including one that runs through Bay Area communities like Martinez all the way into the wine country around Calistoga. Some of the Bay Area districts jump over the mountain range that separates them from the Central Valley.

“The people in the Contra Costa suburbs want to save the endangered species, the people in Stockton want to eat the endangered species,” Quinn joked, referencing a quote from earlier redistricting battles in the Golden State.  

Another Bay Area district, he said, snakes far down the Central Coast, lumping many rural, traditionally-conservative voters into a more liberal Bay Area district. The Central Coast was the scene of a huge Republican win last year, in which Republican Sam Blakeslee defeated Democratic former Assemblyman John Laird.

In each case, Quinn said, the purpose appeared to create more Democratic seats. The decision not to just make nine Bay Area Senate districts also probably robbed Latinos of a Senator. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) has also raised problems with the maps and released their own proposed lines – though their maps also include a district that starts in the Bay Area and goes far down the Central Coast.  

The court complaint goes on to lay out the various ways the plaintiffs feel like the commission ignored both communities of interest and decades-old guidelines used in previous California redistricting efforts. These go back the 1973 California Supreme Court case, Legislature v Reinecke, and Gov. Ronald Reagan’s veto of the proposed maps that year. These call for keeping cities, counties and geographical areas together as much as possible, among other guidelines.

Sensing that they might do better if the commission drew the maps instead of the Democrat-dominated Legislature, some Republicans got behind Proposition 11, the 2008 initiative that created the commission.

Two years later, voters rejected an initiative that would have abolished the commission – Prop. 27 – while passing one that expanded their work to drawing the lines for Congress as well, Prop. 20. Wealthy developer Charles Munger Jr., a big GOP donor, gave almost $11 million to the Yes on 20, No on 27 effort, which represented over three quarters of the money they collected.

This came after he gave $1.25 million to Prop. 11. This caused grumbling among some Republicans after the maps came out and some in the party charged the commission with bias, including at the party’s recent state convention in Los Angeles. New California Republican Party chairman Tom Del Beccaro has been particularly critical of the maps.

Quinn has worked on redistricting issues for years. He also served on the Fair Political Practices Commission and has written for the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

He acknowledged that no matter who draws the maps, it is likely that there would be a lot of districts that looked “packed.” That is, as though huge numbers of people registered with one party or the other are pushed into one district where they dominate – leaving the other party to dominate nearby districts, though by smaller margins.

“This is a very polarized state,” Quinn said. “You have areas where the Republican registration is very high. There’s not very many of them. Then you look at the Bay Area, where Republicans have all but disappeared and you have very high Democratic registration.”

The issue with the Senate maps appears to have more to do with that other common gerrymandering technique, “cracking.” That is, diluting one party so they fall just short of being able to elect a member of their party, as Quinn said the Senate maps have effectively done. Cracking can be dangerous, though, as shown by many of the districts drawn by Republican legislatures in different states a decade ago. In 2006 and 2008, many of these ended up electing Blue Do
g Democrats instead.

EDITORS NOTE: An earlier version of this story said Quinn has done work for the Claremont-based Rose Institute. He has not, and the Institute is not involved in the lawsuit.

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