Redistricting and Gerrymandering, Explained: Battles Over California’s Electoral Map

Republicans and Democrats wage a seemingly endless war over the state’s electoral map.

updated • UPDATED DECEMBER 6, 2021
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The battle over California’s electoral map reaches a fever pitch every 10 years, including 2021.

The battle over California’s electoral map reaches a fever pitch every 10 years, including 2021.   Niyazz

Every 10 years the state of California and, for that matter, the other 49 United States as well, undergo a massive political upheaval. The process is called “redistricting,” and it involves reshaping congressional and legislative districts, a process  that can determine who gets elected to state and federal office for the next decade. In many ways, the redistricting process is just as important as elections themselves.

The difference is, elections are decided by voters. They’re democracy in action. The redistricting process, on the other hand, is not democratic. The process is mostly controlled by state legislatures, and the result is that districts are often drawn to protect incumbent officeholders. For example, in California’s 2002 elections, every single congressional incumbent cruised to victory, thanks to the district map that had been newly created the previous year.

In most states, the party controlling the legislature also controls redistricting, and the process can be used to keep that party in power, even when most voters would prefer the other guys. When the redistricting map is obviously drawn to favor a party or individual lawmaker, the process is called “gerrymandering.”

This was the situation in California until 2008, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spearheaded a citizens’ initiative that ended the practice of lawmakers drawing their own districts—in effect selecting their voters. In November 2021, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission completed the process of redrawing the state’s election map for the second time.

Redistricting happens in the year after each U.S. census, which takes place in the zero-numbered year every decade. The idea is to adjust districts to better reflect shifts in the population while maintaining the principle of “one person, one vote” by making sure districts remain of equal size, and that they make sense geographically. There was a census in 2020. That means for California, as for all states, 2021 was a redistricting year. But redistricting has a long and contentious history that goes back to when the Constitution itself was written.

Gerrymandering: as Old as the U.S. Itself

There are two types of gerrymandering—“packing,” and “cracking.” In a “packed” district, boundaries are drawn to include as many voters as possible from the party in power, and exclude everyone else. A “cracked” electral map is gerrymandered to split voters who support one party across two or more districts, watering down their ability to vote as a bloc in favor of their party. As a result, gerrymandering often results in strangely shaped district boundaries that seem to follow no geographical logic.

The practice dates back to the founding fathers. The term itself comes from Elbridge Thomas Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of  Independence who was governor of Massachusetts in 1812 when he signed off on a bizarrely shaped congressional district designed to favor his party, the Democrat-Republicans. Gerry, whose surname was actually pronounced “Gary,” lost his own reelection in 1812, but was quickly picked to serve as vice president by the fourth U.S. president, James Madison.

Madison himself was nearly the victim of gerrymandering, and if it had worked against him, the Constitution may never have included the Bill of Rights. In 1789, Patrick Henry was the most powerful legislator in Virginia. He was a fervent anti-Federalist, meaning that he opposed the U.S. Constitution as it was then written (Virginia had ratified it in 1788), believing it would give way too much power to the centralized, federal government. Madison was a strong Federalist, who not only supported the Constitution, but also wanted to add a Bill of Rights.

Henry was determined to keep Madison out of Congress so he engineered a complicated congressional district loaded with anti-Federalist voters that also included Madison’s home county—thereby packing Madison’s district.

In that case, Henry’s efforts failed. Madison won anyway, defeating James Monroe (who would later succeed Madison as the fifth U.S. president) by 336 votes, or about 15 percent.

California’s Long Record of Gerrymandering

California has its own notorious lineage of gerrymandering that endured for 60 years, until voters—in a measure that has been taken by only seven other states—abolished the practice.  In 2008, the authority to draw Congressional districts was taken away from the legislature and put into the hands of an independent citizen’s commission. This pro-democracy move followed a long battle. According to California elections and redistricting scholar T. Anthony Quinn of Claremont College’s Rose Institute of State and Local Government, “in no state has the battle over drawing districts lasted as long or been as bitter as in California.”

Quinn dates the start of the battle to 1951, which “marks the dividing line between the years of nonpartisan government in California and the highly partisan political climate of today.” That year, Republicans used a politically partisan redrawing of district lines to hold off the state’s burgeoning Democratic majority. In the 1952 state assembly elections, the GOP went in holding 47 of the 80 seats in the Assembly and came out with 54—even though only 1.9 million, or 37 percent, of the state’s 5.2 million registered voters were Republicans.

But Republican gerrymandering could not hold off the overwhelming Democratic majority for long. From 1958 to 1994, Democrats won a majority in the state assembly in every election but one—1968, the year that Republican and California native Richard Nixon defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey for the presidency. (Nixon also topped Humphrey in California by three percentage points.)

Democrats employed gerrymandering in ruthless fashion to keep their majority and expand on it. They were led by San Francisco Democrat Phil Burton, who was perhaps the most powerful legislator in the state from the mid-1950s until he died in 1983 while serving his 11th term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Burton exerted control over the political maps with an approach so heavy-handed he once drew a district specifically to help his own brother, John Burton, win a seat in Congress.

But after that anomalous 1968 election, Republicans got overconfident. Newly elected Assemblymember (and later, 19-term congressional rep) Jerry Lewis circulated an internal party memo instructing his fellow Republicans that their “number one” priority should be “a program to establish districts in California that will elect the highest possible number of Republicans.” He wrote that although a Republican redistricting plan should appear to be “balanced and representative,” it would actually be “totally designed for partisan purposes.”

Republicans never got the chance. Democrats retook the Assembly in 1970. Armed with the Lewis memo as evidence of Republican intentions, Democrats—who were never as secretive about using redistricting for partisan goals—set about the task of gerrymandering the 1971 map in their own favor yet again.

After a drawn-out fight that failed to come up with any sort of compromise redistricting deal, Democrats submitted their own gerrymandered maps, which  Gov. Ronald Reagan promptly vetoed. Under Article XXI of California’s constitution, the state Supreme Court has “exclusive jurisdiction” whenever “a certified final map is challenged.” So the court took over. The process dragged on until 1973, when a commission of court-appointed “special masters” finally came up with a final plan.

A decade later, Burton was at it again, coming up with a map that included one district so strangely shaped that he deemed it “my contribution to modern art.” In 1991 another Republican governor, Pete Wilson, vetoed a redistricting plan because, he said, it had been “drawn with the objective of unduly protecting incumbents, thereby largely preserving the results of the prior decade’s outrageous gerrymander and depriving the public of competitive districts.”

Once again, the high court was forced to step in. But this time, the court was able to get the job done in time for the June 1992 elections.

The End of Gerrymandering in California

By 2008, yet another Republican governor—Schwarzenegger—was not willing to wait around for Democrats to draw up yet another gerrymandered map. He led an effort backed by $12 million in contributions to take the redistricting process away from the legislature entirely.

Schwarznegger got his way, though just barely. By a 51-49 margin, voters approved a ballot proposition, Prop. 11, that created an independent commission to draw the new maps starting in 2011. The commission consists of 14 members—five Democrats, five Republicans, and four members with no party affiliation. The members are picked through a lengthy and painstaking process with an Applicant Review Panel sifting through hundreds of applications to come up with 120 candidates, then narrowing the field to 60.

The legislature then narrows the field again, to 36. From those, the state auditor picks eight at random. Those eight then select the next six themselves.

The commission then gets to work. But the most important part of the process is that their work must be public. In 2011, the commission held 34 public hearings attended by 2,700 people, and also received about 20,000 written comments from the public.

The State of 2021 Redistricting

On Nov. 10, the Citizens Commission approved and released an official draft of what California’s electoral maps could look like for the decade to come. The maps may not be aggressively gerrymandered, but they are still, perhaps unsurprisingly, controversial anyway. Among the objections that arose within the first few weeks of the release:

  • Leaders of several Black advocacy groups say that the maps “have ignored the interests of many Black communities and millions of residents in the state’s most populated areas,” according to a report by the Sacramento Observer. The draft maps combine the congressional districts currently represented by Democrats Maxine Waters and Karen Bass—the only two African-American congressional reps from Los Angeles County, where 40 percent of the state’s Black population resides—into a single district, effectively eliminating one African-American representative from Congress. (Prior to the map’s release, Bass announced that she would retire from Congress and run for mayor of Los Angeles instead.) In addition, a district in Carson whose population is 25 percent African-American is now attached to the predominantly white communities of Redondo Beach and Rancho Palos Verdes, rather than to the heavily black cities of Compton and Long Beach, diluting the African-American vote, the critics say.
  • Latinx voting rights groups also say that the maps under-represent the Lantinx population, according to a Sacramento Bee report. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund drew up its own proposed maps that contained 16 congressional districts with a majority Latinx population. The commission’s maps include only 13, mostly in the Central Valley, Imperial County and Los Angeles regions. But Latinx residents make up 39 percent of the state’s population, and that segment has grown by 11 percent in the past decade.
  • Political leaders in Monterey County point out that the maps split the Salinas Valley in half. Agricultural areas such as Greenfield, King City and San Benito County have been placed in the in the same district as Silicon Valley municipalities such as Cupertino and San Jose. “That makes little or no sense when you have a community that’s really oriented around agriculture as its main economic driver,” Norm Groot, executive cirector of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, told KION-TV in Monterey.
  • Though the commission says it pays no attention to partisan considerations or the needs of incumbents to hold on to their jobs, congressional Republicans are upset with several new districts that they say appear skewed to get them out of office. Devin Nunes, a Republican from the 22nd Congressional District in the Central Valley—who gained national prominence as one of Donald Trump’s most vigorous defenders in the 2019 impeachment proceedings—now finds himself in a district that calculations show would have been won by Joe Biden by nine points. [UPDATE: On Dec. 6, Nunes announced that he would not seek reelection for an 11th term in Congress.]

Mike Garcia, the only Republican to represent a Los Angeles County district in Congress, won his 2020 race against Democrat Christy Smith thanks largely to voters in predominantly Republican Simi Valley. On the new map, Simi Valley voters have been sliced off of Garcia’s district and replaced with voters from Lancaster and Palmdale, areas that a Los Angeles Times report described as “purple,” saying that those communities look “like an Impressionist painting with alternating splotches of red and blue.”

San Diego County Republican Darrell Issa also faces a new district more evenly balanced between the two parties.

UPDATE: A San Francisco lawyer who is also a member of the Republican National Committee filed an emergency petition with the California Supreme Court, asking for the citizens commission lawyers to be fired for political bias, according to a report by Hannah Wiley of the Sacramento Bee. The petition was filed on Nov. 30.

Attorney Harmeet Dhillon alleges that the Los Angeles law firm Strumwasser & Woocher has ties to the Democratic Party. Prior to his firm’s retention by the commission, partner Frederic Woocher disclosed that his firm represents several Democratic U.S. House reps, including Orange County’s Katie Porter, Tony Cardenas from Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, Lou Correa—also from Orange County—and Nanette Barragan, who represents the current 44th district in southern Los Angeles County.

Dhillon’s petition also accuses the commission of violating transparency rules by holding meetings behind closed doors. 

“This commission’s commitment to transparency has consistently gone far beyond anything required under the law,” commission spokesperson Pedro Toledo said, after the commission received a copy of the petition.  “We are working hard to ensure our maps are drafted with meaningful public input and engagement as we finalize them.”

The commission’s deadline for submitting final maps is Dec. 27.

Has California ‘Tied Its Hands Behind Its Back’?

Getting rid of gerrymandering would seem to be an unqualified good. But in the current national political climate, not everyone is so sure. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives hold a narrow, eight-seat majority, meaning that a mere five flipped seats would hand House control to Republicans. That stands at high risk of happening in the 2022 midterm elections. In midterms since World War II, the party that holds the White House has lost an average of 27 house seats.

According to Los Angeles Times columnist Nicholas Goldberg, while Republican-controlled state legislatures are busy gerrymandering their electoral maps to give their party extra seats in the House, California has now “tied its own hands, giving up a powerful tool of politics that is available to most other states.”

According to an analysis of the draft map by the data journalism site, the commission came up with 39 “Democratic-leaning” congressional districts, a loss of five for Democrats compared to the map in effect since 2011. That alone would be enough to give the House to the GOP. While Republicans did not gain any new “leaning” districts—they have seven—the new map adds four “highly competitive districts,” that is, districts that could go to either party, for a total of six such swing districts.

Due to slowing in California’s population growth, according to the 2020 census, California lost one seat in Congress. On the new map, the state will send 52 representatives to the House, rather than the current 53.

Sacramento Bee columnist Josh Golke was even more blunt, noting that the commission’s current draft map is “less favorable to Democrats than the current arrangement and triples the number of highly competitive congressional districts to six.” In otherwords, he says, California despite being heavily dominated by Democrats has actually given itself less of a chance to help retain Democratic control in Washington, D.C. The five seats needed by Republicans to take back the House could, conceivably, come from the new California electoral map alone.

“The result,” wrote Golke, “is unilateral partisan disarmament.”

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