Goodbye, polarized California. Hello, moderation and good governance. The first batch of maps is out, and the reviews are in. “A triumph for citizens” raves the Los Angeles Times. “Redistricting panel gets first draft right” is the verdict of the Sacramento Bee.
We speak here of the fruits of an entity called the Citizens Redistricting Commission. The CRC was voted into existence in 2008, when Californians passed Proposition 11, which was later enhanced by yet another ballot initiative, Proposition 20. These measures put the responsibility for drawing legislative and congressional district boundaries into the hands of ordinary Californians. No longer would self-interested politicians do the job. Instead, 14 public-spirited citizens would put together a sensible map free of gerrymandering and other partisan vices. “Now we will finally see elections that are more competitive and we will see elections that reward people more for performance,” promised then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Inspiring words–but true? Are the new maps really any better than the old ones?
Luckily, they can’t get any worse. California has long been at the forefront of “creative” redistricting. In 1982, California Congressman Phil Burton oversaw a notorious gerrymander that increased the Democrats’ advantage in the House delegation from one to nine seats. In 2002, politicians came up with a map that was more bipartisan but no less scandalous: it protected almost all sitting incumbents.
Still, while the new maps won’t do any harm, the hard truth is they probably won’t do much good, either. At least not as much good as Californians have been led to expect. Ironically, for all the talk among politicians and pundits of taking away safe seats and fostering more competitive elections, nothing in the instructions to the CRC mentions “competitiveness.” In fact, a lot of the new criteria for “good” lines work against it.
Commissioners must respect the “geographic integrity” of neighborhoods, cities and counties, for instance, but election results in most counties and cities in California are pretty lopsided in favor of one party or the other. Birds of a partisan feather flock together. Commissioners must also respect the federal Voting Rights Act and draw a certain number of majority-black or majority-Latino districts, but black and Latino voters tend to favor the Democratic Party by significant margins. Finally, commissioners must consider “communities of interest”–that is, self-identified groups of people with something in common economically or socially–but “communities of interest” also tend to be communities of similar politics.
In sum, if California’s goal is reduced partisanship and more competition, then all of this adds up to a pretty self-contradictory effort. It’s like saying you want a more comfortable house, but you don’t want it to have electricity, a roof, or running water.
But let’s suppose Californians had decided to enshrine competitiveness as a goal for their citizen commissioners. That’s what Arizonans did in 2000, when they voted to establish the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. Unlike California’s CRC, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission was expressly charged with creating competitive districts to the extent practicable. The commission drew up a map of 30 legislative districts. And how many of them turned out to be competitive? Four.
What happened? Well, one court found that the IRC had inappropriately discounted instructions to create competitive districts. But they did so in part because the aim of competition butted up against other constitutionally mandated criteria, similar to those required in California. Also, ordinary Arizonans were vocal about their preference for district lines that reflected the feelings of community they had in day-to-day life. They wanted representatives who could focus on the interests of the historic neighborhoods of central Phoenix, the University of Arizona, or the rural areas of eastern Arizona or the Hopi tribe, to name just a few. These feelings were made known in hundreds of public comments and in testimony at public hearings, where competitiveness was hardly mentioned. So commissioners tilted toward preserving “communities of interest.” This year, Arizona will repeat the process, and proponents of competitive districts began organizing early to make sure their preferences are heard, loud and clear, by the new IRC.
The lesson here is that competitive elections can be tricky to engineer through mapping. Californians might lament a more competitive map than might have been, but they should at least take comfort in the thought that the best-case scenario would probably not look as different as one might think.
There are other reasons for encouragement, too. District lines aside, California has a new nonpartisan primary system in which the top two vote getters advance to the general election, regardless of party. This should translate into less security for incumbents because the finalists can be two candidates from the same party. Straight-ticket voting is no longer a shield against being booted out of office. Even districts that choose one Democrat and one Republican for the general election are now likely to select more moderate candidates. For many California voters, this should make their November decisions less of a reflexive choice based on party labels.
So let’s hope elections in the Golden State are about to enter a golden age of competition. It’s not impossible. Just don’t expect the new electoral maps to be a major factor. The way the mapping commission was sold was almost entirely at odds with the way the commission was told to approach its work. Different hands may now be drawing the state’s electoral map, but those hands are still tied. The likely outcome is the replacement of a map that’s completely uncompetitive by a map that’s merely highly uncompetitive.
But we can always fix that in 2022.
Jennifer A. Steen is a professor of political science at Arizona State University.
*Photo courtesy of California Citizens Redistricting Commission.