Opinion Columns & Blogs

Redistricting helped Democrats, but it was done fairly

State Auditor Elaine Howle reads the first person selected in a random drawing for the state’s Citizens Redistricting Commission in 2010.
State Auditor Elaine Howle reads the first person selected in a random drawing for the state’s Citizens Redistricting Commission in 2010. hamezcua@sacbee.com

After the newly created Citizen Redistricting Commission redrew congressional and legislative districts in 2011, Republicans complained that the new maps were tilted in favor of Democrats.

The subsequent three election cycles seemingly confirmed the advantage for Democrats, as the party expanded its control of the congressional delegation, gained two-thirds supermajorities in both legislative houses in 2012, lost them briefly in 2014, and regained them in 2016.

A new mathematical analysis of the 2011 maps reaches the same conclusion, contrasting them with the last redistricting by the Legislature in 2001.

“This evaluation of the California Redistricting Commission maps suggests that the CRC plans have been more favorable to Democrats, on average, than the plans drawn by the California Legislature in 2001,” says the study, conducted by a Public Policy Institute of California research team headed by Eric McGhee.

“However, much of the difference appears to be driven by outlier elections. There is some inconsistency, but the typical election year features a small advantage under the CRC plans.”

Does that mean the CRC, composed of equal numbers of Democrats, Republicans and declined-to-state voters, consciously helped Democrats tighten their already strong grip on California?

Some Republicans say yes, but the McGhee study, the historic record on redistricting and my observation of the CRC’s incredibly lengthy meetings, which delved deeply into block-by-block minutiae of 173 legislative and congressional districts, say otherwise.

As McGhee accurately notes, the 2001 maps were a bipartisan gerrymander, aimed at preserving the numerical status quo in the Legislature and the state’s congressional delegation.

Democrats controlled the Legislature and the governorship then, and theoretically could have grabbed every possible seat through creative cartography – as they had the previous time they controlled the process, in 1981. But for a variety of reasons, including the possibility of intervention by the Republican-controlled U.S. Department of Justice, Democrats agreed with Republicans to simply enshrine the status quo.

It was a big tactical win for Republicans, but it ignored the immense demographic and political changes that had occurred in California during the decade of the 1990s.

When the CRC took over redistricting after the 2010 census – thanks to ballot measures sponsored by a major Republican donor and backed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – it was confronted with adjusting California’s political maps for two decades of societal changes.

That, coupled with the commission’s large contingent of non-white members – particularly Asians – and its desire to maximize representation for cultural and ethnic “communities of interest” led to very dramatic changes in boundaries. Those changes, in fact, did favor Democrats because their voter pool, and those of Democrat-leaning independents, had been growing while Republican voter rolls had been shrinking – and as they continue to shrink.

PPIC’s report is especially timely because of what’s been happening in other states.

Unlike California, most state governments are dominated by Republicans and have done to Democrats what they used to do to Republicans in California – draw districts that favor their party. It’s a major factor in the Republican’s control of Congress.

Disregarding their own record of such power-grabbing, Democrats have complained loudly about GOP gerrymandering, and won some court battles. It’s possible the U.S. Supreme Court will lay down new standards for remapping in advance of the 2020 census.

California’s commission process isn’t perfect, and the McGhee report suggests it could be improved.

But it’s one that other states should emulate because it’s just plain wrong for politicians to draw districts that favor whichever party is in control of the process that year.

Voters should be selecting their representatives, not the other way around.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public-interest journalism organization. Visit calmatters.org/commentary.