Thomas Elias: Gerrymandering: California again takes the lead
Gerrymandering has been a reality in politics more than 200 years, since Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry designed a congressional district whose outlines looked a lot like a salamander to ensure one of his fellow Democratic-Republicans would be elected to Congress. Thus, the term gerrymandering, coined by the old Boston Gazette.
Gerry’s party no longer includes Republicans in its name, but over the last 10 years, modern Republicans have devised congressional districts even more convoluted than his creation.
This was why Democrats running for the Legislature in Wisconsin last fall drew hundreds of thousands more votes than Republicans, but the GOP remained in control of both houses there. Essentially, Republican lawmakers in 2011 drew angular lines placing almost all registered Democrats into relatively few districts, with the rest peopled by GOP majorities.
Seeing this reality in Wisconsin and elsewhere, voters in half a dozen states over the last year followed California in taking reapportionment from politicians.
Wisconsin-like things happened regularly in California until 2011, when a new Citizens Redistricting Commission created by voters was appointed by the non-partisan state auditor to draw new districts, taking from politicians the reapportionment required by the Constitution every 10 years.
Anyone can apply to be on the commission, whose final membership is determined by a drawing. Before that commission began its complicated work in 2010, Democrats self-servingly dominated the reapportionment process here in the 1990s and early 2000s. The auditor was swamped with applicants in 2009, but so few voters now are seeking spots that the application deadline has been delayed.
The next California commission, set up via a 2008 ballot initiative, must feature five Democrats, five Republicans and four voters from neither major party. It must design districts that conform as much as possible to natural boundaries like rivers and the tops of mountain ranges, while still meeting one-person, one-vote requirements for almost equal population.
The commission’s makeup ensures a far less partisan reapportionment plan for legislative and congressional districts than California otherwise might get, with its Democratic-dominated Legislature and Democrat Gavin Newsom as governor.
Still, Democrats have almost a 2-1 registration advantage over Republicans, so most districts are bound to have more Democrats than Republicans, just as they have for the last decade. This could become important if the state loses a congressional seat or two, very likely because other states have lately outpaced California in population growth percentages.
Losing one or more districts could toss two or even three incumbents into the same districts, with some being forced to move or retire.
This can create healthy competition and maybe even some rather independent-thinking representation.
And as in other areas where this state made creative moves to deal with serious problems, the rest of America noticed. Last May, Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed a measure requiring support from both major parties when new lines are drawn for seats in the House of Representatives.
Then in last fall’s midterm election, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah voters set up their own citizens commissions.
That will prevent situations like what arose in Pennsylvania, where Republican legislators and a GOP governor in 2011 devised a reapportionment plan giving Republicans 13 House seats to 5 for the Democrats, along with solid control of the state Legislature. Years later, in early 2018, that state’s Supreme Court overruled the plan, saying it “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated Constitutional standards.
New districts were drawn, and last fall Pennsylvania elected an equally divided 9-9 congressional delegation, contributing to the Democrats’ takeover of the House, which restored California’s Nancy Pelosi to the speaker’s chair. Even so, the Pennsylvania Legislature remained Republican, still under the 2011 plan, although Democrats won more votes there, just as in Wisconsin.
“There is definitely both grass roots and legal momentum for giving redistricting to ordinary citizens,” as California did, reapportionment expert Michael Li of New York University told a reporter.
And yet … a case brought by Republicans challenging the new Michigan citizen reapportionment law could endanger the entire concept. If the U.S. Supreme Court eventually backs the GOP in this case, the California commission could die quietly, tossing redistricting back to politicians who can be counted on to look out for their own interests to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit http://www.californiafocus.net
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