Every 10 years we go through a ritual which attracts little attention but can have much to say about who gets to govern California.
Known as redistricting, the exercise is tied directly to the decennial taking of the nation’s census which is mandated to keep track of our ever-growing and changing population. The next count is scheduled for 2020.
Under a law adopted at voter urging twelve years ago, 14 people unidentifiable to the general public are entrusted with the task of redrawing the states political boundaries.
Like artists with a palate of many colors they must come up with a fresh painting that pleases a majority of the viewers while offending the fewest.
Where exactly political boundaries should be drawn is an issue that has confounded us from the earliest days of the Republic. Then, with only 13 distinct colonies to contend with the lines evolved rather haphazardly as each new wave of settlers arrived.
None of this became really important until the breakout of the Civil War—the bloodiest in our history which pitted North against South with the regions defined by states that were slave-owning and those that were not.
Even to this day those divisions still carry meaning. But they bear little comparison to the disparities yet to come with national expansion and the establishment of the two great modern political parties whose philosophical credos continue to morph as new leaders emerge.
Nor did they reflect the enormous social, economic and demographic changes which have turned America over several centuries into a giant jigsaw puzzle comprising nearly 240 million citizens of extremely diverse backgrounds.
This is the mix with which a handful of Californians are asked to contend in redrawing our political map.
How to put these pieces together to maintain a “more perfect union” or at least a less partisan one is the impossible task which we have assigned to so-called Citizens Redistricting Commissions.
California was the first in the nation to create such a body as a result of Proposition 11 which the voters adopted in 2008. It initially applied only to state legislative districts and was then extended in 2010 to Congressional districts.
After an elaborate winnowing process overseen by the State’s Auditor, 14 people will ultimately be selected and given the daunting assignment of how to most equitably carve up the state’s 53 congressional, 120 legislative districts and 4 Board of Equalization seats.
The law requires that the panel have 5 Democrats, five Republicans and four registered with other parties or have stated no political preference. All changes must be approved by 3 members of each group and submitted by August 15, 2021.
The objective was to take the powerful “gerrymandering” authority out of the hands of the state legislators whose principal goal has always been and will always be self-survival.
Over the years both parties have alternately held the upper hand in Sacramento with Democrats currently in decisive 2/3rds control in both houses and a governor of the same party.
Ironically, it was former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who led the efforts to bring about reforms chastising what he saw as an undemocratic system which empowered the politicians “to pick the voters rather the voters picking the politicians.”
As election reforms go, the reasoning was simple enough: Create a more competitive playing field and it should reduce partisan conflict.
However, even with an “independent” commission in place, achieving perfect objectivity may be beyond the capacity of any political body and especially one being asked to make decisions on other than simply political grounds.
The lobbying by one or another side in favor of certain solutions is bound to continue with the edge going to those who can make the most convincing arguments.
The reality is politics cannot exist without partisanship! The trick is finding ways to have them cancel each other out sufficiently to achieve the fairest result. That’s a Solomonic challenge.
Understanding this the Commission was given a set of basic guidelines to which it must pledge to adhere but which could make the job even more complicated.
Districts must be equal in population, cohesive in structure, contiguous, reflect communities of interest, respect existing boundaries and not be seen to aid or prejudice disadvantaged incumbents or opponents.
That’s a formula which a panel of geniuses would have trouble mastering.
Now that the new rules have been in place through one cycle, it is instructive to see what may have changed—whether less partisanship has been achieved.
In short—not much has.
In a half dozen Southern California congressional contests in 2018 in somewhat of a surprise Democrats ousted the Republicans. Gerrymandering issues did not influence any of the results.
In the 38th CD in Los Angeles County where a 71% preponderance of incoming Latino voters compelled significant boundary changes, the incumbent Democrat, Latina Rep. Linda Sanchez, remained secure.
The jubilant Democrats took these seats primarily because of a growing wave of anti-Trumpist sentiment among GOP voters who had re-elected party-line members in this region for decades.
California has become an essentially one-party state with outcroppings of GOP support in some rural and exurban areas.
Revising political maps is not going to fix this. Better candidates with more appealing platforms might.
Until then, 95% of incumbents in statewide offices will continue to be re-elected and in this bluest of states, the outcomes are usually predictable
Nevertheless, California is viewed as the model state for its redistricting efforts.
After a fractious battle over a suit filed by its legislature (California’s last three GOP governors, Schwarzenegger, Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian joined in an amicus brief) Arizona followed suit when the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 in a 5-4 ruling voted to uphold the constitutionality of its Citizens Commission.
Since then Idaho, Washington, Montana and Alaska have also taken the Commission route with Supreme Court cases pending involving North Carolina and Wisconsin that could alter what many see as forward progress.
Of course, it will always depend on whose ox is being gored.
The basic premise behind every electoral reform including redistricting—to insure that all voter’s voices are equally heard is an inevitable extension of the “one man one vote rule.” It was enshrined in the law way back in 1964 by the Supreme Court ((Reynolds v. Simms).
Insuring equality for women, minorities, workers, young people, farmers v. urbanites, Democrats, Republicans, Independents and those professing no party affiliation at all is nothing new.
It is an elusive goal. How and if it can ever be achieved remains debatable but the work continues—and Californians are making a contribution.
What is certain is that California’s political typography is undergoing constant changes with no fixed rules on how best to manage them.
Meanwhile 14 people will be asked to find ways.