Trying to Lessen Partisan Influence on Creation of Voting Districts

December 7, 2012

by Heejin Hwang

Not long after the 2012 elections, TPM’s Sahil Kapur asked several elections experts how right-wing lawmakers were able to so easily hold their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, especially since capturing that chamber in 2010 Republican leadership had engaged in obstructionism and promoted the loopy and wildly unpopular idea of privatizing Medicare.

Sam Wang, a Princeton University professor and co-manager of the Princeton Election Consortium, told Kapur, “The big factors are redistricting and incumbency. In the last few years, Republican-controlled legislatures were very effective at redrawing districts to favor their side. Gerrymandering gave them a built-in advantage of 1.25 percent of vote margin even before a single vote is cast. Incumbency also has its advantages, which is good for another 1.25 percent ….”

Other states, such as California and Arizona have taken action to lessen partisanship in the creation of voting districts.

In Nov. 2010, in adherence with the California Voters FIRST Act, State Auditor Elaine Howle randomly selected in lottery like fashion eight members the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC). Two months later, the full-fledged 14-member independent commission embarked on transforming 2010 Census data into State Assembly, State Senate, and congressional district lines.

Though eleven states give primary redistricting authority to commissions, only California and Arizona have an independent selection process. More common are bipartisan, or “tie-breaker,” commissions, which split membership equally between the two major political parties, or “blue-ribbon panels,” with members including high-ranking state officers and sometimes legislative leaders. California’s CRC has built-in safeguards against blatant gerrymandering. For instance, the CRC combines the “tiebreaker commission” model and the “blue-ribbon” model, having five Democrats, five Republicans, and two Independent or “other party” members, all of whom were non-elected professionals.

California is only the second state to form an independent redistricting commission -- somewhat surprising considering the extent to which political gerrymandering continues to impair our voting system. Before people even register to vote or head to the polls, redistricting preordains who they will vote for in congressional and state elections and how influential their vote will be. Such decisions, as noted here recently are too often made for them -- by legislators and political parties, who have commandeered the redistricting process for partisan gerrymanders that greatly favor incumbents. The situation may be worsening as one recent analysis in Governing suggests.

Evidence from California reveals, however, that the independent commission system can address this problem. In the 53 House races there, seven incumbents lost re-election, two of whom were running against other incumbents, and nine races did not even feature an incumbent. In the latter districts, many of the incumbents had announced their intent to retire well before the election. Age may have been a factor, but both Reps. Jerry Lewis and Elton Gallegly were dealt unfavorable districts in the CRC’s final maps, with Gallegly having to potentially challenge fellow Republican Rep. Howard McKeon. Other incumbents were drawn into the same districts as their peers, such as Republican Reps. Ed Royce and Gary Miller, whose Orange County districts were combined. Miller, however, has announced his intent to run in the district vacated by Lewis, to avoid running against Royce. Drawn into the same district as Lewis, Republican Rep. David Dreier considered running in other districts before announcing his retirement earlier this year.

Independent commissions may not be a perfect solution, and fair redistricting should not be framed as a war on incumbents, where turnover alone is a measure of success. As the CRC experienced, unlike party affiliation, bringing in even indirect consideration of race creates a host of legal and practical issues, from creating a “representative” commission to defining a “community of interest” and “majority-minority districts.” The commission system, however, forced officials to think beyond partisanship when identifying a community, and the commission’s final maps have shaken up the status quo, especially for candidates running for the U.S. House. The shakeup can only be good for California voters, who enjoyed more of a say in more competitive races.