California in referenda battle over redistricting


I’m currently staying in San Francisco, visiting for the US midterm elections. California is a more interesting state than you would normally expect for such a Democratic state at this year’s midterm elections. You have a highly competitive gubernatorial race, a strong Republican challenge to a three-term senator, and a ground-breaking referendum on legalising the use of cannabis.

Yet there is another fascinating contest going on, where the majority Democratic establishment is pitted against a grassroots movement for electoral reform.

Like most US states, California’s electoral districts are brazenly drawn to achieve partisan results, for both the State Assembly and the 53 House of Representatives districts (more than any other state). This can be done to achieve a partisan advantage for the majority party over the minority, although in California it generally works to ensure that both parties’ seats are much safer and limits the electoral competition to a very narrow area.

I did some brief analysis of the results at the 2008 election in California’s 53 House districts. The average margin of victory worked out at 44.4%. That’s right. In a two-candidate race, this works out to roughly 72-28. In six races (five Democrats and one Republican) the winning candidate faced absolutely no opposition from any officially nominated candidate. In two other seats, the main opposition to the Democrats came from a Libertarian candidate, with no Republican standing.

In the largest state in the United States, with over 200,000 voters casting ballots in nearly every district, the Republican party failed to field candidates in seven districts. Only five districts had margins of less than 10%, and only two had margins of less than 5%.

It produces elections where voters’ ballots rarely matter, and most members of Congress are returned without any real competition. It is unclear whether gerrymandering actually results in a greater number of Democrats, but it certainly limits the number of marginal seats, and therefore real democratic competition, in the largest American state.

Comparing the current make-up of California’s House delegation, the State Assembly and the State Senate to 2001, the last group elected on the previous boundaries, you find that in that time the Democrats have gained two House seats and one Assembly seat, and lost one Senate seat. The Republicans have lost one House seat and one Assembly seat, and gained one Senate seat. This demonstrates how effective California’s politicians have been at legislating themselves out of any electoral danger.

The seat that covers San Francisco, the 8th District, is an exception to this general rule. Held by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the 8th is constrained by San Francisco’s position on the end of a peninsula, and is relatively compact. But you can see the bizarre drawing of boundaries in other parts of the Bay Area on the following map.

The 14th, 15th and 16th districts all cover parts of Santa Clara County, and you can see the elongated, unusual electoral boundaries. You can also see an arm of the 18th district (label not appearing on the map) jutting into the 11th district, and the way districts on the northern side of the Bay snake around each other.

Similar redistricting processes happen in most other US states. The effect tends to be particularly severe in larger states, where a larger number of districts allows trickier boundaries to be drawn. You can download the Google Earth maps for all US House of Representatives districts from my maps page. Apart from California, other states with particularly bad gerrymandering include Florida, New York and Maryland.

The left-wing electoral blog Swing State Project has been renowned for how its participants have produced electoral maps that produce severe biases towards Democrats, as part of a push to counter the Republicans’ effectiveness in skewing electoral boundaries in their favour. One blogger managed to produce an electoral map that would elect 28 Democrats and not a single Republican from New York state.

This is a key reason why state legislature elections and gubernatorial elections are so important in 2010. The once-in-a-decade redistricting process will kick off following this year’s Census, to be implemented in time for elections in 2012. Parties that control state legislatures and elect Governors will be able to gain extra seats in the House of Representatives.

While most states engage in this partisan gerrymandering, a limited number of states have attempted to move towards a model of independent drawing of boundaries that attempt to maintain communities and avoid gerrymandering, in the way that boundaries are drawn in Australia.

In 2008, California voters passed Proposition 11, by a slim margin, creating an independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. This commission has been tasked with the responsibility of redrawing boundaries for the State Assembly and State Senate, and would carry out this operation prior to the 2012 elections. The commission would include Republicans, Democrats and nonpartisan figures, and would also be required to draw boundaries that are “compact” and follow a “community of interest” (the same criteria used in Australian redistributions).

On this year’s ballot, there are two further initiatives in this area. Proposition 20 would expand the authority of the Redistricting Commission to cover California’s federal districts, as well as state legislative districts. The passage of this would probably result in a massive redrawing of boundaries, producing a wider range of marginal districts and forcing a scramble for seats as incumbent members of Congress see their seats completely redrawn.

Another initiative, Proposition 27, would instead abolish the Commission entirely, giving the power to draw boundaries back to the state legislature. The proposal is supported by a number of Democratic politicians and unions. The two proposals are counterposed, so if both receive majority support, the one with more votes will be successful, with the other defeated.

While most coverage will focus on who wins Senate and Governor’s races, the possibility of new, fair electoral boundaries for the largest American state in federal elections is an exciting prospect. Most Californian newspapers have endorsed Proposition 20, and it will be interesting to see if the success of Proposition 11 can be replicated.

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  1. I think Maryland’s 3rd District has to be my favourite. It is amazing how they could make an electoral map that looks like that and not have people get suspicious from the outset.

  2. “Another initiative, Proposition 11, would instead abolish the Commission entirely, giving the power to draw boundaries back to the state legislature. The proposal is supported by a number of Democratic politicians and unions.”

    I’m curious as to what possible argument the Democrats and unions can be using in support of this. I somehow think that “vote Yes so we can go back to gerrymandering your boundaries” won’t cut it.

    I do know some states (Iowa I think?) have an AEC-like independent body that draws boundaries, so here’s hoping that more states follow this lead.

  3. Proposition 27 (I mistakenly referred to it as Prop 11) has been argued for on the basis that the Redistricting Commission is expensive and extra bureaucracy, which is absurd when you realise that Prop 20 is proposing to combine the two redistricting processes in one, and that it only happens once a decade.

  4. The way boundaries are drawn is a great example of the dysfunction of the US electoral system which has nothing to do with voting being voluntary.

    Since most elections are two-horse races, the methodology behind running an election campaign (and you can see this from various campaigning manuals and so forth which can be found online) in the US is: Step 1 – work out how many votes you need to beat the other guy. Step 2 – where do you get those votes from, etc. If ‘the other guy’ isn’t likely to get very many votes at all because the districts have been gerrymandered to produce big margins, then the proportion of the electorate which you need to engage with in order to win is much lower.

  5. The argument against reform usually refers to unilateral disarmament. i.e. Why should California reform its boundaries if Texas won’t reform its?

    It’s a reasonable argument. From memory Charlie Cook’s PVI calcs show that there are 200 generic Democratic seats to 235 generic Republican seats. (This is the equivalent of adjusting the Mackerras pendulum to a 50-50 vote split – based on the presidential results – and seeing how the districts fall.)

    So the Democrats are already starting some way behind. (Worth remembering when/if the GOP takes back the House.)

    That said, unlike Texas, California’s gerrymander is more of a ‘bipartisan’ one. a.k.a. The incumbent protection racket. Safe seats at the expense of marginal seats, as opposed to one party at the expense of the other. It is telling that only one California seat changed hands in the two ‘wave’ elections of 2006 and 2008.

    Nor can there really be any serious argument is against reform at the state level.

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