Revisiting the Redistricting Revolution

There’s an old political adage that says, “As California goes, so goes the nation.” Redistricting reform could be California's next big contribution to our political culture.

California has long been a political trendsetter, from launching a tax revolt in the 1970sto leading the green revolution in the 2010s. Yet ahead of the 2020 census and the nationwide 2021 redistricting, there’s another trend that we’d be wise to revisit, one that California has meaningfully and uniquely influenced: independent redistricting.

Redistricting is, in many ways, crucial for democracy: Without it, election districts would likely come to vary wildly in population over time, resulting in some people being vastly under- or over-represented in our democracy. But in the United States, we do something that’s virtually unheard of in the rest of the democratic world: We let incumbents, or the party in power, draw their own districts. Unsurprisingly, politicians aren’t keen on drawing districts that might result in losing seats for themselves or for their party, even if such lines may mean fairer representation for their constituents. In that way, the redistricting process, while intended to be a democratic equalizer, can become a tool for disenfranchisement, through which opponents’ voters are split (“cracked”) across districts to dilute their vote or, alternatively, concentrated (“packed”) into as few districts as possible to waste it.

How potent can this political black magic be? Consider North Carolina, where in 2016 the Republican-controlled legislature openly gerrymandered the state to pack Democratic voters into as few districts as possible. While the state split nearly 50-50 for Democrats and Republicans in the November election, Republicans won an overwhelming 10 of the state’s 13 Congressional seats. Though across the nation Republicans were the more successful gerrymanderers in the last redistricting cycle, both parties have embraced the more inequitable iteration of redistricting.

In 2008, though, Californians decided to strike back, and they made moves to improve on a political process that other states had been working on for years.

With Proposition 11, California voters passed a ballot initiative stripping the legislature of its traditional power to redraw state legislative (and later Congressional) election districts. Instead, they put a nonpartisan Citizens Redistricting Commission fully in charge of redistricting, from holding public hearings up and down the state to adopting the final election district maps. The theory was that by removing incumbent self-interest from the equation and adding process and transparency protections, the commission would draw election districts that were more representative of the state’s diverse constituencies, and not slanted to benefit any incumbent or political party.

And it worked. California’s 2011 redistricting is widely acclaimed by academics andreformers as having produced some of the fairest, and most competitive, election districts in the nation. (Disclaimer: I’m the founder of the California Local Redistricting Project, which is a joint initiative of California Common Cause and McGeorge School of Law.) Last year, Harvard University’s Kennedy School presented an award to the state commission. Dean Archon Fung explained that the commission “showed how citizens can take the lead in redistricting efforts to construct maps that respect communities and citizens and are fair to political parties.” He added: “It is an innovation that other states should consider emulating.”

Many states are. Just in 2018, voters in three states—Colorado, Michigan, and Utah—passed ballot measures reforming their state or congressional redistricting processes by removing or limiting incumbents’ control of the process through the use of a commission. There are now eight states that have turned over congressional redistricting to a commission and 12 states that have done the same for state legislative redistricting.

In a development that was rarely seen a decade ago, redistricting reform is even taking root at the local level. As with state legislatures, the default rule for local government is still that politicians get to draw their own districts. In other words, the city council draws its own council districts, the county board its own supervisorial districts, and so on. But local politicians are no more immune to abusing redistricting for their own gain, and we find similar patterns of partisan, racial, and pro-incumbent gerrymandering.

But the adoption of California’s State Commission prompted a ripple of reform up and down the state—sweeping up major jurisdictions like Los Angeles and San Diego counties and cities like Oakland and Sacramento—such that 13 local governments have now adopted redistricting commissions of their own, with a combined population greater than 46 states. While California remains the epicenter of local commission-based redistricting, this reform has also permeated local governments beyond the state’s borders, from Seattle to Santa Fe, and from Austin to Minneapolis.

Redistricting commissions, of course, aren’t panaceas for all the problems of contemporary American elections and the various ways politics enter the picture. From candidates embracing a toxic brand of political rhetoric, to the flood of Super PAC spending dominating our elections, to voting policies designed to suppress voter turnout, there’s a lot of democratic housekeeping that needs to be done.

Even so, the role that independent redistricting has played in recent months and years has taught us two crucial lessons, ones we ought to carry with us. First, redistricting reform is a key ingredient to making our political system responsive to voters. According to a Brennan Center analysis, almost 75 percent of U.S. House seats that changed party hands in 2018 were drawn by a court or a redistricting commission, not politicians. Second, redistricting reform can win—and can be a source of unity. Collectively, the three state commission redistricting reform measures that passed last November enjoyed broad and bipartisan public support; in addition, H.R. 1, House Democrats’ first bill, includes a requirement that states use independent redistricting commissions going forward.

All of this is deeply encouraging. In a democracy, after all, elected officials ought to be representative of, and responsive to, the voters.

There’s an old political adage that says, “As California goes, so goes the nation.” When it comes to redistricting at least, let’s hope that continues to be the case in the years ahead.

This piece originally appeared in New America.