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Redistricting, California Style: Letting "The People" Draw the Maps

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2011 State Congressional Districts_California Citizens Redistricting Commission

Gerrymandering: it ain't nothing new in California politics.

For much of the state's history, the legislature has firmly controlled the once-a-decade redistricting process. New district lines are typically redrawn in a way that directly favors whichever party is in control.

Demographic techniques like splitting apart cities, carving up ethnic enclaves, and leaping across vast geographic swaths to bundle like-minded voters are common gerrymandering tools long used by pols to solidify power.

In fact, investigative news service ProPublica recently reported that California's Democrats have for decades been extremely effective at carefully redrawing electoral maps to protect incumbent legislators in their party.  Since 2000, no Democratic incumbent has lost a single Congressional election!

Trying to hand the power to the people

In an effort to reduce direct partisan influence in the redistricting process, California voters in 2008 approved Proposition 11, effectively stripping the legislature of their redistricting authority and assigning the role to a new independent group of citizens selected in a lottery process.


Called the Citizens Redistricting Commission, the 14-member group was tasked with redrawing the state’s political boundaries through a less partisan process less not dominated by any one political party. The group included five Democrats, five Republicans, and four other participants who didn’t belong to either major party.

The passage of Proposition 20 in 2010 further expanded the role of the commission to include California's congressional districts. A prominent group of Democrats - including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi - helped campaign against the proposition, spending roughly $7 million in a failed attempt to defeat it.

Last year, following the release of federal Census data, the citizens commission held a series of public hearings, collecting testimony from members of communities throughout the state to help guide where the new district lines should be drawn. It then drew and voted on maps for the 53 congressional districts, 40 state Senate districts, 80 State Assembly districts, and four Board of Equalization districts. The maps, which withstood an initial court challenge, will be used for the next decade starting with the current election (2012).

A video by the Greenlining Institute on California's new system

What other guidelines did the commission have to follow?

In accordance with the California Constitution, the Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC) was mandated to draw its district maps in accordance with the following criteria (in order of priority):

  1. Equal population: this follows the “one person, one vote” principle in the U.S. Constitution.
  2. Compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act: the law prohibits voting practices that discriminate against minorities, including redrawing district maps in such a way that deny voters the right to elect a candidate of their choice. Passed by Congress in 1965, the VRA was specifically aimed at curbing disenfranchisement among African American voters in southern states, where district lines had historically been redrawn to limit the political influence of those communities. For districts with a history of minority voter discrimination, any changes to district lines or voting practices must be reviewed by the federal government. In California, this applies to King, Merced, Monterey, and Yuba counties.
  3. Contiguity: every part of a district has to remain attached in some way.
  4. Keeping political subdivision, neighborhoods and “communities of interest” intact: a newly drawn district shouldn’t divide up clearly defined communities. Proposition 20 defined a community of interest as “a contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation."
  5. Compactness: a district should be as geographically compact as possible.
  6. Nesting: to the extent possible, each of the 40 State Senate districts should contain two or more of the 80 Assembly districts.

In drawing new district maps, the commission also couldn't knowingly discriminate against or favor any particular party, incumbent or candidate. They also had to be drawn without regard to where an incumbent or candidate lived at the time.

Spicing things up

The rules have resulted in some interesting contests. For instance,  Rep. Jerry McNerney who for years has  represented District 11 on the outer edges of the East Bay, found himself running for re-election this year in a Central Valley district he didn’t even live in! McNerney actually picked up and moved to Stockton, the heart of the newly drawn ninth district.

And, as a direct result of redistricting, Rep. Howard Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman, who are both current Democratic members of Congress from Southern California (and formerly represented different districts), now find themselves facing off against each other in a bitter over one remaining district.

So how well did the new system work work?

Like everything in politics - depends who you ask. Many political observers praised the process, contending that the new independent system marked a dramatic improvement over the rife partisan influence of California's past redistricting efforts.

But ... not all was rosy. In ProPublica's investigation of the process, it found that the commission was victim to political wrangling and questionable partisan influence. Operatives from both parties - but particularly the Democrats - went to great lengths to influence how the group drew its maps. Among the beneficiaries, according to the report, was Rep. Jerry McNerney. His reelection bid was initially expected to be threatened by the redistricting process. But instead, with the help of a campaign run by a front group, the new maps placed McNerney in a significantly safer district than had initially been anticipated.

In its investigation, ProPublica wrote:

"The citizens’ commission had pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players. To get around that, Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests.

When they appeared before the commission, those groups identified themselves as ordinary Californians and did not disclose their ties to the party. One woman who purported to represent the Asian community of the San Gabriel Valley was actually a lobbyist who grew up in rural Idaho, and lives in Sacramento."

California Citizens Redistricting Commission site (with all the new maps)

See how your district has changed_Sacramento Bee

Redraw California 

Sacramento Bee's interactive redistricting map (to see how your district has changed)

An interactive redistricting game! (from USC Annenberg)


U.S. Department of Justice's redistricting page

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