Campaigns and elections

California’s Redistricting Experiment

Jan 31 '12

This is a guest post from previous guest contributor Eric McGhee.


The latest legal decision is in, and things are looking even better for California’s nascent Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC).  Last Friday, the California Supreme Court ruled strongly in favor of the CRC, declaring unanimously that the commission’s state Senate map should be used this year even if a pending referendum to overturn the map qualifies for the ballot.  The decision, Vandermost v. Bowen, can be found here .  This follows on a decision last fall, where the Court unanimously (and without any written opinion) dismissed a more substantive legal case against the state Senate and congressional maps.

The outcome was consistent with an evaluation of the CRC plans that Vlad Kogan at UCSD and I conducted for the California Journal of Politics and Policy (in fact, the Court cited the paper in its decision).  Not only are the new maps an improvement over the old ones on a variety of criteria the CRC was supposed to consider, they are also a little more competitive and show no signs of clear partisan favoritism.  That doesn’t mean that one party won’t benefit—Democrats can generally expect to do a little better—but these gains have as much to do with particular outcomes under the old maps as anything with the new ones.

My sense is that most political scientists and other savvy political observers would not have expected the commission to be such a success.  There were plenty of good reasons to be skeptical:

  1. It was composed of ordinary citizens with no formal connections to the Sacramento political establishment and little experience with redistricting;
  2. It had 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans, and 4 independents, and a majority of each group had to approve the plan;
  3. The criteria the commission was required to consider (compactness, minority representation, etc.) often contradicted each other (though the commission improved their own draft maps on virtually all these dimensions);
  4. The maps benefit the Democrats, yet a Supreme Court composed almost entirely of Republican appointees (6 out of 7) has repeatedly and unanimously ruled in the commission’s favor.

It makes me wonder whether the commission model is actually the right one for the post-Baker v. Carr era.  By requiring a new redistricting every 10 years, that US Supreme Court decision forced a contentious political fight that many states used to studiously avoid.  The result has been endless litigation, with the courts trying and often failing to stay out of the fray.

A commission like the one in California both avoids conflicts of interest and offers maximum transparency.   Indeed, the CRC held dozens of public hearings, all those hearings were filmed on line, all the data from the draft and final maps were publicly available, and the commission released a final report (mandated by law) detailing how its maps met a variety of legal requirements.  In essence, the commission drew the lines the way a Court would draw them—with documentation about why the lines were drawn and which legal requirements they satisfy—and while the commissioners might have had strong political points of view they did not benefit personally from the lines.  Considered this way, the commission becomes a quasi-judicial body, and its products correspondingly more valid in the eyes of a Court.  That doesn’t mean that a commission’s maps are necessarily “better” (can someone offer a definition of “better” that everyone would agree on?) except in the sense that they are a more appropriate fit for what has become a quasi-judicial process.

I’d be interested to hear reactions to this idea, especially from those who support the legislature-drawn model.  Why not a commission?  If a commission is such a bad idea, why has California’s experience been a good one (so far)?  Is it just dumb luck?  Or is there something more meaningful going on here?