California’s propositions 20 and 27: Redistricting reform again?

Yet again, the voters of California are being asked to decide on the process of redistricting. This time, we are being asked not one, but two questions.

Proposition 20 would extend the current redistricting commission to include US House seats. It currently applies only to state legislative elections and the Board of Equalization (which administers the tax code). Proposition 27 would abolish the commission entirely, and return all redistricting back to the regular political process–the legislature and governor.

The current commission was enacted by voter initiative only in 2008. So, exactly one general election later, we are being asked to either extend its mandate or get rid of it.

In 2008, I expressed opposition to the measure that created the current commission. The reason is certainly not that I am not in favor of legislators getting to draw their own district boundaries. It is an inherent conflict of interest. At the time I quoted one of my favorite political reformers of all time, Henry Droop, who wrote the following lament in 1869:

from Maine westward to the Pacific Ocean, in the last ten years, in no state whatever had there been an honest and fair district apportionment bill passed for the election of members of Congress [except] where two branches of a legislature were divided in political opinion, and one checked the other.

Despite my belief that independent commissions, rather than partisan elected officials, should handle redistricting, I was against this measure because of its being effectively a bipartisan commission, rather than a really independent one, and having an unduly complex selection process. I will not belabor the arguments here; any reader who wants to see my logic at the time can read the original. There was a lively debate in the comment thread at the time.

But now I get a chance to reconsider. And I think I will vote NO on 27, that is to keep the new status quo of the redistricting commission. I still do not like the model created by this commission, but I would rather improve it than abolish it. If we put legislators back in the line-drawing business, we might never get it back. If nothing else, voter fatigue over more and more redistricting measures may set in (if it has not already!).

Now, what about extending it to cover US House districts? I believe I will vote NO on 20 as well. Again, I most certainly oppose letting legislators draw district lines. However, I have never been a fan of unilateral disarmament. The federal dimension matters here, and this measure takes California’s legislature (controlled by Democrats) out of the process of determining the boundaries of 53 House districts (12% of the total number of House seats!), with no reciprocal move by Republican-controlled states to “disarm” their legislatures from controlling a like number of districts. As I also said in the earlier post,

Thus redistricting reform in the House presumably should be done via constitutional amendment or an interstate compact (on the model of the National Popular Vote for the presidency).

I can’t say that I feel good about either of these votes. And I welcome arguments in the comments. Who knows, maybe some readers will persuade me to vote otherwise. But for now, I am voting to retain a bad existing commission (NO on 27), but not to extend its mandate to include House seats (NO on 20).


Shortly after the 2008 election, I reviewed just how uncompetitive California’s districts were. The bigger issue here is that, redistricting commission or not, it simply will not be easy to create more competitive districts. The problem of lack of competition is deeper than the process by which we draw districts for our electoral system of first-past-the-post.

6 thoughts on “California’s propositions 20 and 27: Redistricting reform again?

  1. What the epilogue said.

    The remarkable thing about this is how hard it is to get journalists, good government activists, and other wannabe opinion-makers to grasp the point.

  2. Unfortunately, because of the unilateral disamenent issue, redistricting reform of the House of Representatives would have to be done through federal legislation.

    I think this would be constitutional. I believe Congress mandated single member districts with low population discrepencies in the 1960s. So there is precedent for Congress mandating to state legislatures how Congressional districts can be drawn.

    But the House has shown an amazing lack of interest in this topic, given that every ten years some Congressmen lose their jobs because of partisan redistricting conducted by state legislatures controlled by the opposing party.

    To be more specific about the unilateral disarmenent issue, non-partisan redistricting for California would cost the Democrats up to six House seats. The Republicans get roughly the same number of “extra” House seats through their partisan districting of Texas and Florida, which combined have slightly more Congressmen than California. If California gets more federal money from a Democratic controlled House than a Republican controlled House, unfortunately that is a strong argument for keeping the map as it is, at least until the Republicans lose their advantage in Texas and Florida.

    Reform might be doable in smaller states, where partisan districting only flips one or two seats, and the fact that the three states which do use an independent commission are the mid sized states Washington (9 seats), Arizona (8 seats), and Iowa (5 seats) is evidence for this.

    Also, I agree with the point in the epilogue. California’s high degree of geographical polarization in terms of partisan support means that even with a non-partisan districting process, you would get few competitive single member seats.

  3. Prop 20 passed and Prop 27 was defeated. So the redistricting commission will remain, and its mandate will extend to US House seats.

  4. Ironically, this will result in the biggest pickup by Republicans of House seats in 2012 due to redistricting. They should get about three or four seats from this.

    There is much crowing on the part of Republican blog commentators about their state legislative gains enabling them to gerrymander congressional lines in the favor across the board in the next couple of years (why boast about this? our side will elect more politicians no matter what the voters want?). But I’ve done some number crunching and actually they are incorrect about this.

    The Republicans had the gerrymandering advantage in the last cycle, just about everywhere other than California. They drew the lines in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and eventually Texas and Georgia. New York and New Jersey were bipartisan pro-incumbent gerrymanders, as was Illinois, though slightly favoring the Republicans.

    Now they get the draw the lines in Flordia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Georgia again, so no real gain, plus the Democrats might have complete control of the process in Illinois and New York. Worse for the Republicans, the states they control tended to be the states they did really well in the Congressional elections in 2010. To gerrymander, you have to concede some seats to the minority party, and in the states I just listed the Democrats are reduced to a core handful of seats. The Republicans may even have to given the Democrats one of the new Texas and Florida districts to keep their voters from being too dispersed.

    This isn’t entirely germane, but I wanted to get this out there because the media will be saying otherwise, repeatedly over the next two years. Actually it may be somewhat interesting that polarization might have advanced to the point where partisan gerrymandering brings less of an advantage than in earlier decades.

  5. Ed,

    I think even the current California districting was really more of an incumbent protection plan than a Democratic gerrymander, though I fail to see why that was necessary at the time. Anyway, under the new plan there will be more swing districts, so if the Democrats have a good year in 2012 they could win more seats than they have now, and vice versa.

    I wrote the following before I saw your comment just before posting, so it is a little overlapping, sorry:



    It may be a consolation then that the disarmament was not completely unilateral: Florida voted to set certain criteria for redistricting, including that districts “may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party”. Redistricting will still be done by the Legislature, but with language like that I presume it will end up in court. Both legislative and congressional districts are affected (amendments 5 and 6, respectively, click my signature for the latter). Florida has been, and was set to continue to be, under a Republican gerrymander.

    So it looks like around a 90 congressional districts now will be under some sort of non-partisan redistricting, including Iowa and the single-member states. A further 35 districts will be drawn by commissions, at least some of whom do bipartisan gerrymanders (New Jersey, Arizona, Washington, Idaho, Hawaii). There may be more states too, and I know Oklahoma just passed a bipartisan commission amendment, but it was unclear to me whether it applied to CDs.

    In the rest of the states, including Oklahoma, the partisan composition of legislatures and governorships in 2011 would lead to a whopping 155 districts being drawn by Republicans, 47 by Democrats, and for 80 districts a compromise would have to be reached. The 28 districts that are estimated to be apportioned to New York, according to Wikipedia, depends on whether the Republicans recapture the State Senate (last I saw it stood at 30 Democrats, 29 Republicans and 3 too close to call, with Republicans ahead; the Democratic Lieutenant Governor would have a tie breaking vote).

    The Republicans certainly seem to be very much advantaged after Tuesday, but so they were in many places in 2001 (and 2003) also. Of course, all this is a rough estimation which does not take into account such factors as the Voting Rights Act, court challenges, incumbency protection, natural limitations on gerrymandering due to voting patterns and/or a small number of districts in a state, and so on.

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