The commissioners were doing the work that must be addressed every 10 years after the census determines which states have gained or lost population, necessitating new congressional district lines for the 2022 midterm elections. Each state has its own rules for line-drawing, some with more politicized processes than others.
What makes California’s process different from many other states’ is that the redistricting commissioners were paying little or no attention to the political lines — either those marking the existing districts or where current officeholders live. To the naked eye, the line-drawing sometimes appeared chaotic and haphazard — and it kept some of the state’s political activists and consultants on the edges of their seats as the commission drew and redrew the congressional districts for the highly competitive area of Orange County no less than three times in one session, for example.
The commissioners in California — the most populous state, with more than 50 congressional districts — faced one of the most complex remapping projects in the nation. And while California will avoid the partisan gerrymandering that has plagued so many of the states where lawmakers from the party in power are drawing the lines, the panel’s work has demonstrated that even independent commissions, which exist in a handful of states, can spark a broad array of controversies. There is little doubt, however, that the California commission’s maps will likely produce as many as eight or nine competitive congressional races next year, along with many headaches for incumbents who may have to play musical chairs to figure out which new districts to run in.
“In the states where the commissions are truly independent, we are seeing really good maps,” said Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal strategist for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. “They’re much fairer from a partisan perspective; (the commissions) are much more responsive to community feedback, so when public hearings are being held, they’re actually listening to what people have to say and then adjusting the maps based on that feedback.” But he noted that in states like Virginia, where commissions included elected officials as members, things quickly went awry.
“Structure makes a huge difference. We can’t say, writ large, commissions are good or bad. It’s how they were designed that’s the really important feature,” Podowitz-Thomas said.
A messy process but more attention to fairness
The decreasing competitiveness of races nationwide, said Simone Leeper, who is legal counsel for redistricting with the Campaign Legal Center, “is a sign that politicians are carefully selecting their voters in a way that makes them have safe seats.” In terms of naked partisanship, this cycle has pushed the limits, in part, she said, because the Supreme Court “essentially handed many states a free pass.”
“That’s something that we are going to be fighting in state courts to the best of our ability,” she said. “But that is a threat that we knew was present, and that the Supreme Court was warned would come to pass — and it is now.”
‘Not all commissions are created equal’
While many of the states that created redistricting commissions with some degree of independence from politicians had hoped to curb partisan gerrymandering and make the process fairer, Leeper cautioned that “not all commissions are created equal,” nor are they free from political influence, particularly when the state’s top leaders have a role in picking their members.
The independent commissions that have done best, said Podowitz-Thomas, have a very clear set of redistricting criteria that has driven the line-drawing process, explicit transparency requirements (with lines drawn in public view) and a review at the end by a third party, like in Colorado, where the state Supreme Court was required to review the maps and decide whether they were compliant with the state Constitution.
“We felt that since the commission was independent that we would have the upper hand, because of the demographics and the voter changes,” said Sonny Subia, who is the Colorado state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. “But what’s happened now is we’ve taken two steps back. So now we’re going to have to work that much harder to make sure we overcome the shortcomings that we were handed by the commission.”
Some similar concerns have surfaced in California, where Latino voter groups are concerned that line-drawers have not done enough to strengthen the political power of Latino voters.
Commissioners have drafted 13 districts (of 52 total) that have majorities of Latino voters — compared with 10 on the current map. But Latino activists have questioned whether the percentages of Latino voting-aged populations are high enough (more than 50%) to give those voters real opportunities to elect Latino representatives in the Central Valley.
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, noted that 69% of the growth in California’s citizen voting-age population over the last decade was Latino — “an indicator of a very mature Latino community, where most of the growth is coming from kids who have turned 18 over the course of decade.” That is one reason why Latino advocacy groups believe that California’s lost seat should not be one with as high a Latino population (89%) as that of Roybal-Allard’s.
In the Central Valley, Latino advocacy groups have argued that the commission’s process should have been driven by drawing Latino-majority districts that could overcome the long history of racially polarized voting, discrimination that has contributed to low Latino turnout and vote dilution in that area. Simply drawing a district where the Latino voting-age population is just over 50% is not sufficient, they argue.
“You don’t get to discriminate year after year after year and then say, ‘Oops, now we’ll put you at 50 plus one and you should be able to win,’ when one result of the ongoing discrimination is that that community just doesn’t turn out in the numbers and percentages that the White community does,” Saenz said.
If a commission knows that it has to draw higher percentages of Latino voting-age populations in some districts to remedy vote dilution and it declines to do so, “that can be a violation that is subject to court action,” Saenz said. But he said it is too early to tell whether California’s commission will fall into that category.
The commission is exploring whether it can redraw some of the lines in the Central Valley to try to boost the percentages of the Latino voting-age populations in individual districts before it votes on final maps next week.