Column: The war is on for control of Congress — but California tied its hands behind its back
For more than two centuries, the congressional redistricting process has been a bitter, partisan affair, an unforgiving game of political hardball conducted every 10 years with blatant self-interest as the chief operating principle.
The tone was set even before the election to the very first Congress in 1789, when Virginia legislator Patrick Henry tried to draw new district lines in a way that would deny a seat to his opponent, James Madison.
Two hundred and thirty-two years later, the partisan bickering continues. The next set of congressional district maps, which will reflect the population counts of the 2020 census, will be drawn mostly by state legislatures (as they were even in Henry’s day), so it is there that the jockeying will take place, with the party in the majority feverishly working to maximize advantages for itself. How district lines are redrawn could well determine whether Democrats or Republicans control Congress after the 2022 midterm election.
But California won’t be participating in that partisan warfare.
That’s right. Texas and Florida and North Carolina and other states fully controlled by the GOP will be able to draw new district lines in ways that help Republican candidates win congressional seats. New York and Illinois and other Democrat-controlled states will divide the turf to their party’s best advantage. States with divided governments will have to fight it out.
But California will take the high road.
That’s because in 2008, California voters did the right thing and created an independent, nonpartisan Citizens Redistricting Commission. The commission was designed to take the line-drawing process out of the hands of politicians in Sacramento.
The reform struck a blow to a system that has far too often subverted the will of voters and effectively disenfranchised millions of Americans.
Under the new process, which is about to be tested for only the second time, it’s hoped redistricting will be fairer. No more using the latest super-sophisticated computer software to target voters from the opposition party — often on a block-by-block or even house-by-house level — to pack them into one single district to minimize their representation. Or to disperse them so that there are so few of them in each district that they can’t elect candidates of their choice.
No more slicing and dicing communities — including Black and Latino communities — to dilute their voting strength; no more bizarrely shaped districts drawn with the single goal of electing a member of Congress from a particular party. No more cynical deals between parties to protect incumbents against challengers.
Those changes are incredibly important. But in the process, California tied its own hands, giving up a powerful tool of politics that is available to most other states. Even though California has nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans and both houses of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats (and the governor is a Democrat too), it won’t be drawing its maps to maximize the strength of Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic caucus in Washington. Instead, presumably, the districts will be drawn to more closely represent the actual partisan breakdown of the state.
That’s a source of frustration, of course, to those of us who are eager for continued Democratic control. But it’s the price we pay for doing the right thing.
This year, redistricting really matters. Democrats have a narrow edge in the 435-seat House, and Republicans could seize control by flipping only about five seats. If that happens, it could do untold damage to President Biden’s ability to accomplish his goals.
And Republicans have reason to be optimistic. In midterm elections since World War II, the president’s party has lost an average of 27 seats in the House.
This time, redistricting could be key. Republicans currently have sole control of the drawing of 187 congressional districts — meaning that 187 seats will be drawn in states where the GOP controls both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office as well. That compares with only 75 districts controlled by Democrats.
“The worst gerrymandering occurs when one party has sole control,” said Michael Li, a senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal think tank. “This is a particularly ominous redistricting cycle coming up. Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina — in those four states alone it is possible that Republicans could pick up enough seats to win back the majority in the House.”
That’s worrisome to me. But as much as I want the House to remain Democratic, I’m convinced California was right to reform its system.
California’s independent redistricting commission is made up of 14 members, including five Democrats, five Republicans and four people not affiliated with either party. They’re chosen by an incredibly complex process combining an application process, random selection and interviews, and which includes restrictions on involvement in politics or lobbying. They’re charged with drawing legislative and congressional districts of relatively equal population under strict, nonpartisan rules.
A Brennan Center report concluded that California’s commission worked well in its first foray — the redistricting after the 2010 census. Seats were more fairly allocated than in the past, in the sense that the number of votes each party received in the state was more closely tied to how many seats it ultimately won. (The 2002 pre-commission redistricting plan was deemed “an infamous bipartisan gerrymander drawn by the legislature to protect incumbents.”)
In the non-reformed world, by contrast, redistricting is often a circus. Between the 2010 census and 2019, for instance, Virginia’s electoral maps resulted in 12 separate lawsuits, which brought the state to the U.S. Supreme Court five separate times. The final state map was left unresolved until 2019 — nine years after the lines were supposed to be final.
Good for California for getting out of the partisan redistricting rat race. Now the U.S. Senate should take up H.R. 1, a sweeping reform bill which would ban partisan gerrymandering and require all states to use independent commissions.
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