Gerrymandering? California doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean voting maps are easy

The Press-Enterprise | April 8, 2019

Huge, electoral change is coming to California politics in three years, and it’ll happen no matter how citizens vote.

The change in question is legislative redistricting, the redrawing of electoral boundaries that will reshape voting districts — literally and figuratively — based on what the 2020 Census says about changes in California’s population. For some residents, new districts will mean new legislative representation, even though those residents haven’t moved and haven’t voted for a change.

None of this is unusual. Federal law requires every state to undergo such redistricting after every census.

But that same law leaves the decision of how to redraw those voting maps up to the states. And in California, the process isn’t handled by politicians.

In 2008, voters approved a ballot measure that set up the Citizens Redistricting Commission — an independent body — with a goal of taking partisanship out of what has always been a hyper-partisan exercise.

California is one of four states that use an independent panel to redraw its voting maps. Legislatures control map-making in 30 states – 31 for congressional districts – with other states relying on panels of elected officials or political appointees

Voting maps that give Democrats a major advantage in Maryland and Republicans a strong edge in North Carolina are currently being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide the legality and limits of partisan gerrymandering. But independent commissions like California’s aren’t in question. In 2015, the high court upheld their constitutionality.

A new commission will oversee the next round of redistricting. From June 10 to August 9, registered voters who meet certain criteria – they must have voted in two of the last three statewide general elections, for example – can apply to through the State Auditor’s Office to fill one of 14 commission seats – five Republican, five Democrat and four held by third-party or decline-to-state voters.

In 2011 – just before California first used an independent panel to redraw districts – more than 36,000 Californians applied for the role.

Starting in September, three independent auditors will eventually narrow the new pool of potential commissioners to 120 applicants. Then, after interviews in Sacramento slated to be held next spring, the pool will be winnowed down to 60. After that, the Assembly speaker, the Senate president pro tem and the legislature’s two minority party leaders can remove up to 24 names.

By July 5, 2020, the state auditor will randomly draw the names of three Democrats, three Republicans, and two third-party/decline-to-state voters to serve on the commission. Over the next five weeks, those eight commissioners will choose the other six to round out the panel.

With the goal of grouping communities with similar interests, the commission will create maps with roughly equal populations for four Board of Equalization districts, 40 state Senate districts, 80 Assembly districts and 53 House of Representatives districts, assuming California has the same number of House seats following the census. At least three GOP commissioners, three Democratic commissioners, and three third-party/decline-to-state commissioners must agree on the new maps.

‘Giant success’

California’s first redistricting commission, formed in 2011, held 34 public hearings statewide and received more than 20,000 written comments. Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who’s done extensive research on redistricting, gave its work high marks.

“I think it was a giant success,” said Levitt, a former lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division. “Not in drawing the perfect maps. I’m not sure you can ever get that. But in the one thing it was designed to be – making sure incumbent politicians didn’t control the process and encouraging citizens to take part.”

California’s new maps were more responsive and gave political parties – in this case, Democrats – the opportunity to win more seats if they won more votes, said Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.

“That’s what democracy is supposed to look like,” Li said.

The commission’s 2011 maps, which withstood multiple legal challenges, “largely satisfied expectations that it would produce plans that are fair to each major party and that increase electoral competitiveness,” a Public Policy Institute of California study found.

“While Democrats did have a greater advantage under the (commission) plans than they did under the plans drawn by the legislature, this advantage is very small.”

While the 2011 maps opened some opportunities for new politicians, it also pitted a few incumbents from the same party against each other. For example, in 2012, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, beat fellow Democratic congressman Howard Berman after redistricting put them together in a redrawn CA 30th.

Sherman has won the seat three times since, but Levitt said that initial face-off against a fellow Democrat “never would have happened” if Democratic incumbents had been totally in charge of the process.

One less seat?

The next census will greatly influence the new commission’s work, and there already are concerns about the upcoming count.

The Trump administration wants to ask census respondents if they are U.S. citizens, a request that’s being challenged in court. Critics of that question, including Democrats and immigrant advocates, fear it will discourage undocumented immigrants — and many citizens who are Latino — from participating in the census. That, in turn, could lead to an undercount that could cost California billions in federal tax revenue and possibly a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“California has not lost a congressional seat in a very long time,” said Jonathan Entin, a law and political science professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “And the process of redrawing districts is even more fraught when a state loses representation in Congress than it is when the state either keeps the same number of seats or gains seats.”

California’s last redistricting spurred complaints about district lines “not (paying) sufficient attention to some communities of interest,” Entin added.

“Redistricting is enormously challenging in the best of circumstances, and California is a particularly complex state, so we should anticipate many of the same concerns next time.”

The next commission could be challenged to draw districts of communities with common interests as Southern California becomes more diverse and neighborhoods’ ethnic makeups change, Li said.

“They’re going to have to make some hard choices,” Li said. “They are going to have to face a very rapidly changing California.”

There’s also the issue of partisan interests trying to game the system.

A 2011 ProPublica investigation uncovered a Democratic plan to have operatives, posing as everyday citizens, advocating for the party’s interests in public testimony during commission hearings.

While the current commission is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, state data shows there are more than 8.6 million registered Democratic voters in California compared to roughly 4.7 million registered Republicans. The number of registered GOP voters has steadily fallen in recent years and now counts as the third most popular political label in California, behind Democrat and “no party preference.”

In a March 16 op-ed in The Sacramento Bee, Timm Herdt, a journalist and no-party-preference voter, argued that independents and third-party voters, not Republicans, should have five seats on the next commission with the GOP having four.

“Data from surveys conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California show that independents are twice as likely as Republicans to be under age 35, twice as likely to be either Latino, Asian or black, and slightly more likely to be men,” he wrote.

“To award a disproportionate share of commission seats to Republicans would likely result in those groups being underrepresented.”


Online applications to serve on the 2020 Citizens Redistricting Commission in California can be filled out at The application period starts June 10 and ends Aug. 9.

The commission consists of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four third-party or decline-to-state voters. Applicants must have been a registered voter since July 1, 2015, have been registered with the same party or been a decline-to-state voter since July 1, 2015, and have voted in at least two of the last three statewide elections.

Commissioner terms last 10 years – much of the work is done by 2021 – and they are paid $300 for each day they are engaged in commission business, plus expenses.

View Original Publication: The Press-Enterprise