When Redistricting Reform Works

Across the country, states are redrawing their Congressional district borders after the new census last year. In the vast majority of states, politicians in the state legislature draw the borders, gerrymandering and protecting entrenched politicians and making as few competitive districts as possible. That changed in California, however, with the 2010 elections, when voters passed Proposition 20, a redistricting reform measure that gave the power of redistricting to a citizen commission and took it away from the state legislature. Prop 20 was a successor to Prop 11, which gave the same authority to the same commission, but only over state legislative districts. At the time, both the Democratic and Republican parties in the state vehemently opposed the initiative for the usual reasons.

In the interest of full disclosure, I voted for both Prop 11 and Prop 20. While a lot of my Democratic friends told me it could risk some "safe Democratic" districts, I argued that it would make elections more competitive and Democrats will have the chance to pick up seats we could never imagine (barring the Paul Ryan factor). Well, the citizen commission is now working, and they have released the first draft of the maps, and not to brag, but I happen to have been right:

Cook Political Report:
David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report, said the maps could boost the Democrats’ numbers in the state’s 53-member House delegation by four seats, identifying as among the biggest losers in the remapping proposals Dreier, of San Dimas, and fellow Republicans Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley, Gary Miller of Diamond Bar and either Brian Bilbray of Carlsbad or Jeff Denham of Atwater.
Democrats and Republican politicos are actually in agreement about the potential gain for Democrats:
Democratic redistricting expert Paul Mitchell projects that the proposed map includes 32 Democratic seats and five Democratic-leaning seats, with 13 Republican seats and three seats that lean Republican. If each side won the seats that were solidly or leaning in their favor, Democrats would see a net gain of three seats in the delegation in 2012.

Similarly, Republican consultant Matt Rexroad estimates the Democrats’ advantage at 3-5 seats, though other Republicans place the estimate slightly lower and insist they will also get new opportunities from the map.
So what happened? How do Democrats gain seats in a non-gerrymandered process that they couldn't gain in a gerrymandered process in a legislature they control but substantial majorities? One reason is that the propensity to increase the number of safe seats reduces the number of probable seats and truly competitive seats. Instead of having, let's say, 10 districts that are D+10, you could easily have 14 districts that are D+5. Yes, it's more competitive, but a more even distribution - or at least a distribution without regard to political affiliation - will, more often than not, help the political party that is dominant in a state, if it has one.

The other reason for this possible increase is a side of this coin that even some Democrats are not going to like, even if it increases overall Democratic representation of California in Congress. It's their own seats going from safe to more competitive. This, frankly, is what politicians are afraid of. The redistricting plan released by the commission screws with incumbent power, and incumbents are unlikely to be fond of it.
Republican Reps. Elton Gallegly, David Dreier, Gary Miller andBrian Bilbray all get the short end of the stick in the new map and could have difficulty returning to Congress. The GOP would also have to defend Reps. Dan Lungren and Jeff Denham, who saw things get tougher in their respective districts.

On the Democratic side, Reps. Lois Capps, Loretta Sanchez and Jim Costa got more vulnerable, while Rep. Dennis Cardoza remains in potentially competitive district.
In another case, two Democratic incumbents may be forced to duke it out in one district.

The side benefit of redistricting - and if you ask a Californian, it is no small matter - that after this redistricting, Democrats are likely to gain not just in Congress but also in the state legislature, with the possibility of two-thirds control becoming more likely for Democrats. California is one of the few states to require a two-thirds majority in the state legislature to raise taxes, and voters only in 2010 gave a nod to majority approval for the state budget. A large reason our state is in dismal shape financially is the tyranny of the minority that the Republicans have been running in the state legislature, by blocking all revenue increase measures and until recently, holding up the budget.

This redistricting plan (draft) also reflects California's changing demographics, which are in no small part to thank for the possible Democratic gains. According to Gallup, 33% of California voters are registered Republicans and 47% are registered Democrats. Obama's approval rating in California is 55%, with disapproval at 36%. Both ratios correspond very closely to show that in California, for every 2 Republicans (or Republican minded voters), there are 3 Democrats (or Democratic minded voters). Which is now reflected in the possible state legislative numbers. Something's working right.

Demographic changes in California in the past decade have been sweeping. There is no ethnic majority in the state. Fully a quarter of Californians are now foreign born, and 42% of Californians speak a language other than (and/or in addition to) English at home. These Demographic changes have help make California more Democratic, especially as the Republican party leadership in California and nationwide seems to have moved into a nuthouse (to quote Bill Maher).

To return to the discussion of redistricting reform, California is showing the country and Democrats and progressives why we should not be afraid to pursue good, well-thought-out redistricting reform to arrest the control of the political process away from entrenched political interests. Let's not be afraid of redistricting reform as some sort of an attempt to steal votes or representation from Democrats. As we have seen, it can be, if done well, a catalyst for positive change that reduces the power of the incumbency, boosts the power of ideas, and helps align a state with its population rather than its political elite.

Also, don't forget that the push to create "safe" districts at the expense of everything else depresses turnout in off-year elections, and we know what happens when turnout is depressed (see 2010 midterms). We did well in California last year, but that in large part had to do with our gubernatorial and Senate races, not Congressional ones. Give people a reason to vote in their Congressional races (such as, you know, their vote can make a difference), and it's an additional incentive for them to show up.