The politics of redistricting in California

We’re stunned. It turns out that Democratic Party politicians acted like Democratic Party politicians. They tried to game California’s redistricting process to protect and expand their majorities in the Legislature and the state’s congressional delegation. They met secretly, they sent each other notes and they gave testimony without revealing their affiliations. They made the redistricting process so — and it hurts to say this — political.

Actually, no, we’re not stunned at all. We may be dismayed, but that’s nothing new. The question isn’t whether Democrats acted like Democrats or politicians acted like politicians, but whether their cynical, business-as-usual approach to decennial redistricting so undermined the reformed process as to make it illegitimate. Despite outrage from California Republican leaders, there is scant evidence that it did.

The controversy arises from the new citizens commission process used this year to redraw Assembly, state Senate and congressional lines. According to a story published Wednesday by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization, Democrats duped hapless commissioners into doing their bidding and drawing lines that gave the party even greater gains than were justified by the demographic changes of the last 10 years. They ginned up ersatz interest groups and witnesses to testify at hearings without letting on that they were working to keep Democrats in office.

“The Democrats’ plan was to deliver synchronized testimony that would herd the commission toward the desired outcomes,” ProPublica reported. “If it worked perfectly, the commissioners might not even know they had been influenced.”


Kudos are due to ProPublica for ferreting out the story of the unseemly and dishonest Democratic politicking. It’s an important part of the record and will hold lessons for improving the process 10 years down the road. But again, it’s hardly surprising; it’s more surprising that Republicans apparently didn’t get their acts together well enough to compete on their own terms.

The reform wrought by voters with Proposition 11 in 2008 (for state offices) and Proposition 20 in 2010 (for the House of Representatives) was intended to break the duopoly that the two big political parties, and especially the majority party, had in California redistricting. They were historic changes; never before in this state had elected officials lost the power to shape districts and thus to virtually award seats to themselves and other candidates who toed the party line. The changes were fought tooth and nail by Democratic Party leaders, who were loath to relinquish their power, and pushed by moderate Republicans like then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who believed a nonpartisan — or at least bipartisan — citizens commission would be an improvement.

And they were right. It was an improvement. But few people were ever naive enough to believe that a redistricting exercise could, or even should, be purified of partisan politics. Drawing district lines is a consummate political act, and it is fruitless to try to remove politics from politics. The people who wound up on the commission after a painstaking and somewhat convoluted process knew that. They were no fools. They were not oblivious to the desire of the Democratic establishment to insinuate itself into testimony, even if they didn’t identify each and every fake witness. Membership was deliberately divided equally among registered Democrats and Republicans, and leavened with independents, even though that kind of division gave GOP members clout beyond their party’s membership in the state.

Commissioners did their work without regard to how their final maps affected the fortunes of political parties or incumbents, and this fact is offered by the ProPublica story as virtual evidence that something went awry. Hardly. The alternative was for the panel to watch carefully how its decisions played in the old school us-versus-them, Democrat-versus-Republican game that Californians had voted to reject. There was never much doubt that the parties would still do battle, but they would no longer own the process. And they didn’t.

Inherent in any type of redistricting are communities that are split that would rather remain together, because communities are not all the same size but districts must be. That’s hardly evidence of failure or successful subversion. No redistricting process can ever be beyond controversy, because none can ever be beyond politics. This one, though, was quite good, especially for a first reform effort. If any commissioners this time around really thought Democrats or anyone else would suddenly be turned into nonpartisan, good-government witnesses — and it’s hard to believe they did — they’ll be a little older and wiser a decade from now.