Californians ought to congratulate themselves. If this is a wave election year, it will be in large part because California ended gerrymandering and set an example for other states to pursue the idea that voters have the right to pick their politicians, rather than politicians picking their voters.
In 2000, California’s politicians drew legislative and congressional district maps that protected incumbents. In 765 elections during the next 10 years, precisely five resulted in change. At the congressional level, one seat changed hands.
That ended in 2008 and 2010 when voters took away the Legislature’s power to draw districts and entrusted a new independent citizens commission. It was made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents selected from 36,000 applicants who had been vetted by the state auditor.
The auditor ensured that the commissioners were free from conflicts, would forgo political involvement, and reflected the state’s ethnic, gender and regional makeup. I am one of those commissioners.
Our commission held 33 hearings across the state, considered the testimony of 2,300 people and received 22,000 public comments before drawing maps for legislative and congressional seats.
The California Supreme Court unanimously rejected a Republican challenge to the result, writing that the maps “are a product of what generally appears to have been an open, transparent and nonpartisan redistricting process.”
In 2017, Harvard University bestowed the California Citizens Redistricting Commission with the Ray and Lila Ash Innovations for Public Engagement in Government Award, choosing us over 500 other programs.
The $100,000 prize has funded commissioners’ travel to states that seek to improve their redistricting process. In my travels, I have found two truisms:
- The public is fed up with gerrymandering.
- Politicians find it impossible to voluntarily cede the power to draw their own district lines.
The public wants the right to vote in a meaningful way. Gerrymandering is seen as a cancer on democracy. Districts drawn so incumbents cannot lose eliminates accountability. If voters lack a meaningful vote, turnout is suppressed.
In Texas, a heavily gerrymandered state, voter turnout in nonpresidential years has hovered at 25 percent.
In North Carolina, a purple state with a slight Democratic registration edge, Republicans held control of the government in 2010 and drew congressional lines giving them a 10-3 majority. A Republican state Senate leader explained the split by saying he couldn’t figure out how to draw it so that Republicans had an 11-2 majority.
In Georgia, one of the states where politicians drew highly partisan districts, fully 81 percent of the state representative elections are uncontested. The Peach State Legislature can adjust the lines every two years as needed to keep incumbents in office.
Overwhelming popular support for fair district lines does not move politicians. In Pennsylvania, 250 local jurisdictions petitioned the Legislature to adopt a California-style system, and 21,000 volunteers held 400 public meetings on the issue. The chairman of the legislative committee responsible for drawing lines wouldn’t even hold a hearing on the issue.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that Pennsylvania’s congressional gerrymandering violated the state constitution. The Legislature responded by threatening to impeach the justices who won found gerrymandering unconstitutional.
In the end, the Pennsylvania Senate offered a “reform” that was so devoid of substance that a commission could have consisted exclusively of wealthy white men, lobbyists or legislative staffers living in the capital city of Harrisburg.
All is not in vain.
Voters in Michigan on Nov. 6 will decide a citizen’s initiative to create a California-like commission. The Colorado Legislature placed a measure on its Nov. 6 ballot to enact a modest reform. Unfortunately, other states have proposed window-dressing reforms.
California politicians resisted reform, too, opposing the commission’s formation in 2008 and placing an initiative on the 2010 ballot that would have unraveled our progress. The public rejected that measure by a wide margin, ensuring we commissioners could do our job.
California Citizens Redistricting commissioners drew the fairest lines we could and did not take into consideration incumbency. As a result, we have several highly competitive seats. Reformers across the nation are envious of what Californians have done. We are on the right side of history in this fight. For that, Californians should feel pride.
Stan Forbes is an independent bookstore owner in Sacramento and a member of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.