Redistricting maps: The devil is in the details

The Citizens Redistricting Commission will be releasing draft maps on June 10th.  This was an early decision by the commission to create a set of pre- and post-release public input hearings, allowing for abstract community testimony early, then later comment within the context of proposed lines.

This sounds like a great idea, but could also be the first real big mistake for the commission.  Prior to the release of maps local activists could engage in an informative debate, but draw a line down Main Street, and the conversation changes – mostly for the worse.  What was once cordial and thoughtful, could turn into a brawl.

But unless the commission changes course or deadlocks on the draft maps (a catastrophic error) they will be releasing lines in a week, and here are some of the top things redistricting professionals are looking for:

Releasing drafts and having people believe they are actually drafts will be a real PR challenge.  If the governor came on live TV and gave a “first draft” of his Budget press conference a day early, how much could he really change that speech 24 hours later?  

Once it is out there, the commission maps will take on a life of their own, and it will be hard for the commission to pull them back and justify changes.  This is particularly true because in redistricting, once you change one line you have to change multiple lines.   The governor could “find” new money to soften a budget problem, but until the commission can find new people, every shift of 10,000 requires a shift of 10,000 somewhere else on the map.

Republican Consultant Matt Rexroad told the commission he could throw a football 40 yards, just like Payton Manning, but he couldn’t do it with 15 angry linemen running at him.  The defensive line in redistricting is the VRA, and MALDEF just made this juggernaut larger by presenting the commission with maps that showed 17 majority-minority Assembly districts, an increase from nine in the current lines.  Any plan put out by the commission that splits the difference could be a setup for a lawsuit.  

Additionally, there are four counties with special Voting Rights rules, and if the commission is going to get federal signoff they will have to be hypersensitive to any reduction of Latino voting power in these seats.  In dealing with some of the toughest VRA districts it seems like the easiest path is to just redraw the existing seats, flaws and all.

The body of law behind the VRA was based on protecting African American voting rights – but if the Commission follows the law this year, it is likely they will eliminate an African American State Senate and Congressional seat – both in L.A.  The only way to avoid this will be to draw districts that go from urban L.A. out to the beach, as the current Rod Wright senate seat does.  With the release of the first maps we will be able to see if this pattern will be repeated by the commission – if they do, prepare yourself for one angry response from the beach communities, and if they do not, expect a loud response from the African American leadership, and some finger pointing to the NAACP that failed to submit a statewide redistricting plan.

It’s not just how many cities get cut, but how many big cities, and how many of the squeaky wheels.  Among the statewide and regional plans submitted to the commission by organized groups, each divided Sacramento, a couple split Long Beach and Oxnard and one sliced Pasadena in half.  If you live in a city like Pomona or Fremont it doesn’t make sense that you would be cut in half, but redistricting reality will clash with common sense, particularly in the congressional districts where population deviations are not allowed.

Ironically, one of the biggest cities wants to be divided.  San Francisco has benefited from controlling two senate districts, yet, based on commission criteria, and a lack of VRA issues nearby, the city should be unified.  This single change has a significant impact on districts going up through the rest of the Bay Area.  On the congressional map, a decision to cross the Bay bridge or not could decide the fate of Democratic members of Congress several districts away.

The commission plan will include state Senate districts, which based on a lower-ranked criteria, should be comprised of two nested Assembly districts.  Latino and Asian plans presented to the commission both used nesting sporadically, eschewing the pairing when it was necessary to work around ethnic populations.  Nesting adds some predictability to the process, and the commission could come under fire if they don’t accomplish this “simple” part of the process.

The Senate plan will also create deferrals, a technical term to describe when people who are planning to vote for their senator in an odd-numbered district in 2012, are put in an even-numbered district.  Their odd-numbered senator finishes the term, and they don’t get to vote for a new senator until 2014.  For two years they don’t have a senator.  This is a “deferral” and in the MALDEF plan there are 4.7 million people who get deferred.  The Commission plan will likely do something similar.

The most common question I get is “will the commission succeed?”  The answer is clearly Yes, and No.  They will succeed in putting out maps, and their work product should be largely upheld in any lawsuits, but there is no way in the world they will meet voters’ expectations when they voted for Proposition 11 and 20.

The state Lottery hasn’t solved the education funding problem, and redistricting reform won’t create common sense districts that maintain all cities, unify all communities of interest, avoid funny shapes and “gerrymanders” and create competitive elections.  It is unlikely that the commission process will meet the voters’ expectations, and the only real benefit to an early release is giving the public and media a chance to come to grips with that reality.

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