Pushing Boundaries toward Fairer Redistricting

Anthony Kammer 

Following two landmark ballot initiatives, California transferred the power to draw legislative districts from the state legislature to an independent commission. And on June 10, the Citizen Redistricting Commissionunveiled its first proposed maps for CA’s State Assembly, State Senate, and U.S. Congressional seats.

By most accounts, California made a massive stride toward improved democratic representation in taking redistricting away from legislatures. Rather than focusing on the particulars of these new maps or asking which party came out ahead, good government advocates watching from other states should seek to understand the dynamic produced by this new quasi-independent redistricting system.

The redisticting process in place before 2008 and still used in the majority of other states–a system whereby representatives choose their constituents using the most up-to-date census and demographic data–screams conflict-of-interest and is antithetical to bottom-up democracy.  Both empirical and anecdotal accounts have revealed that legislative redistricting often serve incumbent interests, add to legislative gridlock, and allows parties to trade seats for influence elsewhere. Abandoning this troublesome process is only one step toward improving the institutions of self-government. But the question remaining for other states is whether California’s model, which has more than once been called Rube Goldberg-esque, is better than the system it’s replacing.

California’s new procedures have generated greatly increased citizen engagement with the redistricting process, and particularly with the development of at-home redistricting tools, gerrymandering is becoming an increasingly accessible issue of debate.  Another interesting shift, which Evan Halper and Richard Simon noted in the LA Times, is that the lack of predictability for incumbents means politicians may have to be more flexible and appeal to broader constituencies as the political landscape changes beneath them.  The Public Policy Institute of California has posted some interesting data about the competitiveness of the new districts here.

What may seem like overwhelmingly positive, pro-democracy developments has others more skeptical. As Peter Schrag outlined in a recent article for the LA Times, “‘Bold’ reforms are rarely immune to the law of unintended consequences.” After all, the redistricting process still exists within the framework of America’s exorbitant campaign finance system. Furthermore, most attempts at limiting partisan influence end up resembling cartoon attempts to plug a leak: if you push down in one place, water just pops up somewhere else.

Despite complicated procedural efforts (which include numbered bingo balls) to ensure four of the fourteen seats on the redistricting commission go to individuals from neither major party, partisan pressure may prove hard to ignore, particularly at a time when states like California are facing such massive budgetary crises. Jennifer Steen’s piece, “Redistricting Will Fix Everything in California—Except For Its Problems,” also questions the potential benefits of the new system.  Steen argues that onerous legal instructions—such as requirements to preserve ‘communities of interest,’ to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, and to maintain ‘geographic integrity’—mean that “competitive elections can be tricky to engineer through mapping.”

In short, the success of the commission is going to depend on how it interfaces with other aspects of election law and our campaign finance system. While California’s other experiments with direct democracy may have helped contribute to its current gridlock and its budgetary woes, the state continues to offer experiments in political institutions that should inform policymakers around the country.

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