Vote Yes on Proposition 20: Redistricting of Congressional Districts

This is the first part of a series of posts giving recommendations on California’s propositions. This post recommends a “yes” vote on Proposition 20, which gives the power of redistricting congressional districts from the state legislature to a Citizen’s Redistricting Committee.

Proposition 21 will be the subject of the next post in this series.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)


California has 53 congressional districts, the most in the entire nation. Of these districts, 34 are represented by Democrats and 19 by Republicans.

This ratio is almost exactly the same as it was in 2002, when California’s Democrats and Republicans agreed to a bipartisan gerrymander that would protect the representatives in both parties.

The gerrymander succeeded. At the time of redistricting 33 of California’s congressional districts were represented by Democrats. Since then exactly one district has changed parties: California’s 11th congressional district. In the 2010 midterms, as a great wave of seats appears poised to change parties for the third election in a row, it is quite possible that California will pass four elections in a row with exactly one seat switching parties. Meanwhile, outside of California, a total of 74 seats have switched hands from one party to another.

The process responsible for this strange phenomenon is called gerrymandering. In gerrymandering, legislators draw the lines of congressional districts so that they can be elected easier. They may draw a district so that a previous opponent no longer lives in it (this actually happened with Barack Obama). Republicans may split a Democratic city into four districts and combine the parts with Republican suburbs or rural areas, creating four moderately Republican districts. Alternatively, they may pack together as many blacks and Latinos as possible into one Democratic district, thus creating three safe Republican districts. Democrats do similar tricks.

In gerrymandering, communities of interest are ignored for political concerns. Districts may combine places that have nothing together in common. California’s 11th congressional district is one such example.

Here rich Bay Area suburbs are combined with Central Valley farmland to create a convoluted shape that looks somewhat like a strange animal.

The advent of software and computers makes gerrymandering ever easier. This is a proposed gerrymander by one user at swingstateproject. Take a special look at congressional district 10 – the pink one. Congressional district 10 goes from Berkeley and Richmond…

Link to Map of Proposed Congressional District 10 in the East Bay Area

…right into the Sierra Nevada:

Link to Map of Proposed Congressional District 10 in the Rest of California

…And How Proposition 20 Fights It

Proposition 20 is a proposal to prevent such grotesque gerrymanders as the one above. It will shift redistricting from the hands of the legislature to a special “Citizens Redistricting Committee.” This committee will be composed of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four independents. Districts approved by the committee must make sure to combine communities of interest and be geographically compact (i.e. their shapes should look somewhat normal).

Californians should vote yes on this proposition. Today politicians draw the districts that will elect them. This process is inherently a conflict of interest; politicians will always pay more attention to their own interest than to the interests of the people in the districts. This is not because politicians are evil, but simply because the incentives end up this way. A Citizens Redistricting Committee will take this power away from them. It will put the interest of the people in these districts above the interests of the politicians.

Citizens redistricting committees are not perfect. Iowa, for instance, produces very compact and non-gerrymandered districts using a nonpartisan committee. New Jersey, on the other hand, has a similar committee but produces fairly gerrymandered districts. This is because New Jersey is a much more complicated state than Iowa. California’s districts may end up looking more like New Jersey’s and less like Iowa’s, simply because California is more like New Jersey than Iowa.

Still, this is probably better than what is currently happening, when politicians draw districts with very little regard to the interests of the people inside them. California’s districts may not end up looking picture-perfect under a citizen’s redistricting committee, but at least they will be probably better than the districts under the current system. If Proposition 20 fails, California might pass ten more years without a single gerrymandered seat changing hands.

That is why I heartily recommend a “yes” vote on Proposition 20.


P.S. Here is the most gerrymandered district I have ever seen on swingstateproject. The district is congressional district 46, the orange-colored one which stretches along the coast from the middle of Orange County into Los Angeles. It then stretches an arm into inner-city Los Angeles:

Link to Map of Proposed Congressional District 46

This district doesn’t look that bad in terms of compactness, although it certainly is shaped somewhat strangely. What really makes this an amazing gerrymander is the totally unrelated communities it combines.

Congressional district 46 starts at Compton, Los Angeles and ends at Huntington Beach, Orange County. Compton has a median household income of $41,993; Huntington Beach has a median household income of $115,011. Compton is  64.9% Hispanic and 32.2% black, with 2.7% belonging to other races; Huntington Beach is around 68% non-Hispanic white, 16.8% Hispanic, 10.4% Asian, and 0.8% black. Compton probably gave President Barack Obama over 90% of its vote; Huntington Beach Republicans have a 45.8% to 28.5% registration advantage over Democrats.

If there are any two places in the nation that should not be put into one congressional district, Compton and Huntington Beach probably fit the bill perfectly.



Tags: California, Politics, proposition 20, Elections, Gerrymandering (all tags)


1 Comment

Proposition 20 has the wrong goals

Districts approved by the committee must make sure to combine communities of interest and be geographically compact (i.e. their shapes should look somewhat normal).

That's a perfect excuse for concentrating urban Democrats into 90+% Democratic districts and distributing the remaining Democracts into a lot of 60-40 Republican districts.

The poster complains that, under the current method of redistricting, the districts rarely switch parties. I believe that Prop. 20 would result in Republican gains in the first couple election cycles, after which switching would once again become rare.

A far better criteria for redistricting would be this: to maximize the number of competitive districts.

Prop. 20 as written is just an excuse to take redistricting out of the hands of the majority party, assign it to an unelected committee selected god-knows-how, and force implementation of rules that will replace gerrymanders with ghettos.

On top of that, it has a difficult approval process that could result in the redistricting being performed by special masters appointed by the Ca Supreme Court:

If the commission does not approve a final map by at least the requisite votes or if voters disapprove a certified final map in a referendum, the Secretary of State shall immediately petition the California Supreme Court for an order directing the appointment of special masters to adjust the boundary lines of that map in accordance with the redistricting criteria and requirements set forth in subdivisions (d), (e), and (f). Upon its approval of the masters’ map, the court shall certify the resulting map to the Secretary of State, which map shall constitute the certified final map for the subject type of district.

How is that democratic?

I'm a strong no on Prop. 20. It doesn't do what it says, and doesn't admit to what it will end up doing.

As an aside, I'm trying hard not to be offended by the poster's closing paragraphs, where he thinks it is a travesty to have Compton's poor minorities and Huntington Beach's wealthy whites in a single Congressional district. Haven't we suffered enough from representatives who care only about the interests of one group or the other? Wouldn't it be better to have representatives who are answerable to diverse districts that more closely resemble the state or country as a whole?

I'm all in favor of making districts more competitive. I'm not in favor of processes that herd us into narrow interest groups so that the map of voting districts doesn't have so many dreadful shapes.

by Ottnott 2010-10-23 06:35PM | 1 recs


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