What Los Angeles area districts might look like this decade
Last week, I wrote
about the importance of state legislatures. The point of view, however, was one of pure policy: now that the GOP has control of both legislative houses in over half of the states with bicameral legislatures, they have proceeded to enact alarming legislation that strips rights away from people they just don't like, especially women, certain local governments and public workers. No matter the election year, a whiplash wave election that puts an insane
Republican Party anywhere close to power would have devastating consequences, but as far as state legislatures are concerned, some election years are far more important that others: the ones whose years end in zero.
That is because every 10 years on the zero, the constitutionally mandated Census of the United States counts our nation's population. Based on this data, new legislative districts are drawn at every single level of government in a process called redistricting. Because of population increases and decreases, certain states will have fewer congressional districts, while others will have more. From the perspective of the 2012 presidential election, the math already does not look good for Democrats, as most of the states that are gaining districts (upon which electoral college math is based) are red, while most of the states that are losing districts are blue. But for Democrats, the more significant problems will occur in the House of Representatives. Adding congressional seats to a red state does not necessarily mean that the district will end up red, but it's a strong possibility, simply because of who draws the lines.
In most states, the decennial maps for congressional districts are redrawn and approved by state legislatures. Why does this matter? Because partisan state legislatures are likely to divvy up the districts in a way that benefits their party. How does this work in practice? At its most elementary, let's hypothesize a state with a population of nine people: five Democrats and four Republicans. And from those nine people, the Census Bureau required creating three districts with an equal number of people. If the state legislature were controlled by Democrats, they might make a map that carves the state in a way that has a majority of Democratic seats. But if Republicans were to control the legislature—something that happens from time to time in Democratic-voting states such as Minnesota—they just might pass a map with different districts that gives the GOP a majority of the seats.
It all depends on how you draw the lines
The 2010 elections will have long-lasting consequences for control of the House of Representatives. The problem isn't just that Republicans won so many seats; the larger problem is that they won them at exactly the right time. Incumbent representatives are hard to defeat, but unseating freshmen is generally an easier task. Unfortunately, having a wave election in a redistricting year allows the new majority party to take advantage of the redistricting process to shore up vulnerable members, usually by taking some friendlier territory from a safer, better-known incumbent—serving essentially to "lock in" that majority for the rest of the decade. In addition, less scrupulous legislators can use the redistricting process to consolidate the districts of opponents to force their members into either retirement or a bruising primary fight and removing them from their seats regardless—a process playing out
right now to eliminate Democratic seats in states like North Carolina and Michigan. The GOP has also shown its willingness to use redistricting to ward off potential political disadvantages at the state legislative level as well: for example, Wisconsin Republicans are redrawing the state senate lines
in a hurry before the recall elections, even though doing so right now would create a bureaucratic nightmare. Clearly, the GOP is willing to use redistricting as a political weapon in spite of any resulting collateral damage.
While most states have this concern, California no longer does. In 2008, voters passed Proposition 11, which created a so-called Citizens Redistricting Commission that removed the authority to draw legislative lines from the state legislature and put it into the hands of a supposedly non-partisan commission (in 2010, a second proposition was passed that put the authority to draw boundaries for congressional districts as well into the hands of this same body). The Democratic Party opposed this measure for obvious reasons: As Democrats have a substantial majority of seats, they control the redistricting process and could use it to maximize Democratic seats while ensuring no contentious primary battles among the state's delegation. (Full disclosure: I serve on the executive board of the California Democratic Party.) Furthermore, the commission's mandated structure is hardly representative of California's population: despite the fact that California is an overwhelmingly Democratic state, the commission is required to have an equal number of Democrats and Republicans serving, with absolutely no guarantee of geographic or ethnic diversity.
The commission has had other problems, such as missed deadlines and cancellation of draft maps—and right now, the current maps are likely to face suits, especially from organizations in the Latino community who feel that the maps dilute their community's voting power and are thus illegal under the Voting Rights Act. Nevertheless, among Democrats the mood of uncertainty at the congressional level has yielded to a cautious optimism, as the commission's draft maps (should they hold) will likely result in Democratic gains of multiple seats, and defeat or retirement of several longtime Republican members. On the other hand, it will be a huge hassle for individual legislators, many of whom are drawn together into the same district under the new proposals and will have to play musical chairs to find a district that will be suitable for them. For instance, it is possible that Democrat Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman from the Los Angeles area would be drawn into the same district, which could result in a colossal battle heading into November 2012, while the latest drafts show Rep. Henry Waxman and Congresswoman-Elect Janice Hahn drawn into the same coastal district. This will be a Democratic headache, but a Democrat will win these seats. Under the old system where legislators got to draw their own districts, however, we would likely not see the turnover or opportunities that these new prospective maps will allow.
The model that California has chosen most certainly is not perfect. As mentioned, it has been a laborious process and the members of the commission are not representative of the state. However, there are several factors that would make this model superior to current models if implemented nationwide. First, Republicans have shown that they have absolutely no scruples about using redistricting to maximize their electoral advantage, regardless of morality, ethics or good governance—to which the examples of the Wisconsin Senate or Tom Delay can attest—and there is absolutely no evidence that the GOP will regain an interest in placing comity or the public interest ahead of partisan gain any time soon. Second, one out of two redistricting elections will take place on a midterm cycle where voter turnout is lower and disfavors Democratic victories, thus running the risk of tilting the playing field against Democrats for the subsequent 10 years. And third, good-government reforms are popular: the ballot measure creating the California commission, as well as the measure expanding its authority, both passed overwhelmingly, while an initiative to repeal the commission failed substantially, despite support from the Democratic Party.
Measures like the California commission may force good Democratic representatives to roll the dice every fifth term. But from a progressive perspective, that's a far better thing than watching helplessly as Republican state lawmakers with no moral compass take turns performing ever more egregious acts of political brazenness with their redistricting procedures. It might be something that Democratic leaders in state governments may wish to consider the next time they have the word "majority" in front of their titles.