California’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission
represents the only redistricting system in the nation that entirely separates
redistricting from legislative influence. California’s unique status is
detailed in "Redistricting in America," a new report I co-authored
with Ian Johnson and David Meyer for the Rose Institute of State and Local
Government at Claremont McKenna College. The report details the congressional
and legislative redistricting processes in all fifty states.

The problem of gerrymandering is not a new one. In fact, it
predates the infamous 1812 partisan redistricting overseen by Massachusetts
Governor Elbridge Gerry that gave the practice its name. Our research uncovered
the story of then-Virginia Governor Patrick Henry’s 1788 congressional
districting plan that unsuccessfully attempted to deny James Madison a seat in
Congress. More recently, Californians will recall the 1981 plan that linked
Vallejo to a San Francisco congressional district using nothing but the waters
of the San Francisco Bay (the voters rejected that plan in a 1982 referendum).

With Congress and the federal judiciary currently reluctant
to curb abuses of redistricting except racial  gerrymandering, states are living up to their reputation as
"laboratories of democracy" in the area of redistricting.  The products of these laboratories have
varied by region. . The northeast region favors advisory commissions, which
draft plans for the legislature to consider. Such commissions operate in
Connecticut, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. In the south,
Boards of Apportionment act as either primary or backup redistricting bodies in
Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas (and in Ohio).

The northwest (Idaho, Montana and Washington) use
legislative-appointed but otherwise generally independent redistricting
commissions, where legislative leaders appoint an equal number of commissioners
and those commissioners (or the state supreme court) choose a tie-breaking
final commissioner. And the newest arrival among the redistricting reform
systems is the southwestern model: Arizona and California’s systems of
independently screened redistricting commissioners who operate free of
legislative oversight or approval.

Redistricting is certainly not free from the quirks of
individual state character and history. The report documents how Florida’s
state supreme court must approve redistricting plans before they become law,
and how an actual shooting war between Arkansas factions during Reconstruction
led to the creation of that state’s Board of Apportionment. California is a
national leader in antagonism over redistricting, but at least (so far) no one
has pulled out a gun in California’s debates.

Among all of these systems and quirks, a promising trend is
emerging. Advisory and back-up commissions appear to be significantly easier to
enact (in many cases, the state legislatures themselves are creating them) and
do appear to at least moderate gerrymandering abuses. Arizona’s essentially
independent commission, which is ultimately named by state legislative leaders
whose choices are limited to a heavily screened pool of 25 candidates,
demonstrated that independent redistricting works. Latino representation in
Arizona’s state legislature jumped 25 percent between the pre-commission 2000
districts and the commission’s 2002 districts. And three of Arizona’s eight
commission-drawn congressional districts have changed party hands between 2002
and 2008. If the two Voting Rights Act-driven Latino districts are excluded
from the count, fully half of Arizona’s commission-drawn congressional
districts have proven extremely competitive.

California, building on Arizona’s example, eliminated even
pre-screened legislative commission appointments from the process. After our
nearly 5,000 redistricting commission applicants are screened by the state
auditor’s Applicant Review Panel, eight of the final commission members will be
selected by random drawing and those eight will select the final six additions
to the fourteen-member commission.

Of course, November could see significant changes in
California’s redistricting scene. Congressman Howard Berman is leading an
effort to abolish the Citizens Redistricting Commission before its members are
even selected. At the same time, Stanford University scientist Charles Munger
Jr. has submitted signatures that would give the commission power to draw
congressional lines.  Currently,
California is one of 22 states that have alternative legislative redistricting
systems but leave congressional districts in the legislature’s hands; if the
initiative passes, California will join the eight states that put both
legislative and congressional redistricting under alternative systems.

California clearly remains a leading "laboratory for
democracy," but this report demonstrates that California voters are not
alone in seeking solutions to the problems of gerrymandering.

Online report and maps: