In summary

After 70 years of squabbling, partisan politics may have been taken out of drawing political districts in California.

By Tony Quinn, Special to CalMatters

Tony Quinn was a longtime Republican consultant whose work on redistricting began in 1971. He was an expert witness in two lawsuits against the 2011 commission plans.

After 70 years of political squabbling, it looks like California will finally have a state redistricting not tainted by partisanship. That’s the message the new California Citizens Redistricting Commission seems to be sending. 

It is hard to believe but we have had seven decades of political fights over district lines, beginning in 1951. In 1981, Rep. Phil Burton showed the nation what gerrymandering could really be with a plan he called “My contribution to modern art.” That led to Republicans trying to hand off redistricting to a non-partisan commission, which was finally achieved for the 2011 cycle.

But that commission quickly came under attack that some of its commissioners had partisan motives and were corrupting the process. 

So why is it different this time? For one thing, none of the 14 current commissioners had involvement in partisan politics. 

Another major reason is that there are really no partisan stakes left as California has become such a deep shade of blue. There is no way a plan could be written that would deny Democrats super majorities in both houses of the Legislature; the Republican collapse has been so pronounced over the past decade.

But California almost certainly will be a factor in the U.S. House of Representatives, something that has not been the case for decades. Democrats have only a five-seat majority in the House, and the make or break for Democrats could be California. 

More importantly, Republicans control more legislatures around the country and Republican-run states are gaining seats. So one might have expected pressure on the California commission to help balance Democratic losses with some sweetheart districts here. A careful examination of the four “visualizations” and the initial draft plan released by the commission shows that this simply is not the case. 

Democrats won seven GOP held Congressional districts in 2018; and Republicans won back four of them in 2020. The three remaining Democrats, Reps. Josh Harder, a Democrat from Turlock; Katie Porter, a Democrat from Irvine; and Mike Levine, a Democrat from San Diego, all have worse districts under the commission’s first draft.

Why is this? For one thing the commission has followed the lead of their legal staff and made a priority of creating Voting Rights Act districts with a majority of Latino voters, as the law requires them to do. This makes playing partisan games much more difficult. The 2020 Census showed an interesting phenomenon: the Latino population is rapidly reaching middle-class status and moving to the suburbs, so the new Voting Rights Act districts are in the suburbs like the Inland Empire.

This is nothing new, for decades Democrats depended on urban political machines populated by immigrant Irish, Italians and Jews. After World War II, second- and third-generations moved to the suburbs. The same thing is occurring with California’s Latino population. Only it is happening faster than with other immigrant groups.

There is criticism in some Latino circles that the commission has not created more Latino districts, but in fact Latino, Asian and African American candidates regularly win in non-minority areas. The commission has collapsed the Los Angeles district of Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal Allard, a seat that has been in her family for 60 years. But it was the most underpopulated district in the state, and Los Angeles grew much slower than the rest of the state.

This is not to say everything the commission has done is perfect. They have made a mess of Bakersfield and Fresno, creating wild looking districts that violate communities of interest. In trying to create three Voting Rights Act congressional districts in the Central Valley they actually lowered the Latino population in the two that exist now. So they do have some clean-up work to do.

But Californians should be pleased with this commission so far. Finally after 70 years it seems that partisan politics has been taken out of district drawing.

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