Redistricting Commission: The Blind Squirrel finds a Nut

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

Well, they say even a blind squirrel can find a nut once in a while. No one has been more critical of the new Citizens Redistricting Commission than I have been. But now their first plans are out in “visual” form, with draft maps to be released on June 10. At first glance, the squirrel got its nut.

These appear to be good plans for several reasons. First, it is clear the Commission and staff listened to the community input they received. What different areas said they wanted are reflected in many of the new maps.

Second, they said they would not use political data and they did not. The maps are balanced in partisan terms; both parties have reason to be pleased and displeased. There is no partisan advantage in these first maps. And the maps draw a remarkable number of politically marginal districts. Naysayers criticized me when I said the objective should be to create competitive districts; well, whether by design or by chance that is what the Commission has done. Now the important thing is to retain that political balance in the final maps, especially when the Commission comes under assault from bruised incumbents who don’t like their districts.

Third, they did not engage in racial gerrymandering that I and many others had feared. These maps do increase electoral opportunities for Latinos and Asians, as they should given population growth over the decade. But the maps do not have weird gerrymanders of ethnic neighborhoods for partisan purposes, as was encouraged upon the Commission by some interest groups.

White Democrats who were hoping for fingers of ethnic populations to shore up their districts will be disappointed, and Republicans who now represent lily white districts will find far more middle class Latinos and Asians in their districts. For those Republicans who don’t learn how to respond to ethnic voter concerns it will soon be bye bye.

These plans do a good job of dismantling the 2001 gerrymander, but there is room for improvement. The law requires that Section 5 Voting Rights Act counties not suffer regression of minority voting opportunities. This applies to four California counties of which three are important: Kings, Merced and Monterey Counties.

The new Kings County districts make sense but at least in the Senate plan, the Section 5 districts for Merced and Monterey do not. The Merced-Monterey districts were among the worst of the 2001 gerrymander; with Monterey County cut up so one Senate district runs miles south to Santa Maria and the other takes Salinas Latino neighborhoods and hooks them with Merced. This was done not to enhance minority voting opportunities but to satisfy favored politicians. Unfortunately, the Commission’s maps retain this division. A better plan to enhance minority opportunities would be to combine Monterey’s large Latino population with East San Jose, a more sensible community of interest, and thus create a new Latino Senate district.

Then there is Stockton. Alas poor Stockton, I knew thee well. Why is it that every decade Stockton gets dismembered? The current plan is so bad that not one legislator or member of congress representing San Joaquin County actually lives in that county. Sadly, the Commission maps don’t improve things. Stockton’s new congressional district goes off to Antioch, miles away and with no community of interest. Uniting Stockton with closer communities like Tracy makes more sense. And one San Joaquin Assembly district runs from Lodi through four counties with stopovers in Discovery Bay, Vacaville and Woodland. Surely, the Commission can do better than that.

After June 10 there is certain to be an outcry from many communities who won’t like what they see. Early on the Commission said it would hire a peer reviewer to go over the maps and provide a second set of eyes. Given their academic background, the line drawing team publicly stated they favored peer review as it is common in the academic world. They should be held to this.

Now comes the hard part, reconciling the many legitimate communities of interest who still have reason to be displeased. The Commission has done well in its first exercise, much better than I thought it would. But further community hearings, and an experienced peer reviewer (obviously with no connection to either party), will make the final product even better.

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