Local redistricting reforms in California have one major flaw

In summary

The state Assembly passed legislation to require large cities, counties and school districts to use independent redistricting commissions for their governing boards, but the measure exempts five major counties.

Gerrymandering – the redrawing of legislative districts to benefit specific political parties, political factions, or individual political figures – dominated post-census redistricting in California for decades.

The Legislature long exercised redistricting authority for itself and the state’s congressional delegation, and every 10 years its powerhouses carve up California to help themselves, their parties, and their loyalists win or keep office. post.

The districts they created often defied cartographic or demographic rationality. Michael Berman, who recently died, was long regarded as a sage who could make or break political careers in the way he drew lines for his brother, lawmaker and congressman Howard Berman, and others in his orbit. .

After a particularly creative round of redistricting in the 1980s, the late Congressman Phil Burton described the lines he drew as “my contribution to modern art.”

Occasionally, when Republican governors refused to sign redistricting bills written by dominant Democrats in the Legislature, the task was taken over by the state Supreme Court.

Yet gerrymandering became so blatantly unfair in California that voters, when given the chance, stripped redistricting power from politicians and moved it to an independent commission.

The reforms were sparked by a bipartisan gerrymander after the 2000 census, one that froze the status quo in both the Legislature and the congressional delegation and ignored massive demographic changes over the previous decade.

A 2008 ballot measure created the district commission, and in 2010 a second measure expanded its authority to congressional districts.

The 14-member commission, with five members from each major party and four voters with no party preference, did its job after the 2010 and 2020 census and while not everyone was happy with what it achieved, the process each time was reasonably transparent. and just.

Gerrymandering has been no less evident at the local level, particularly in the largest counties, cities and school districts, where politics often overshadow civic duty.

Starting in the last decade, there have been efforts to make redistricting more fair and responsive at the local level. Local governments have been forced to choose their governing bodies from districts, rather than at large, and the Legislature has mandated that five relatively large counties use independent commissions to redraw districts for their five-member boards of supervisors.

Last week, the redistricting reform movement took another big step when the Assembly passed legislation requiring all cities and counties with more than 300,000 residents, and school and community college districts with more than 500,000, to use independent commissions. Another bill tightened the criteria for how districts should be formed.

“The redistricting process is crucial to determining community representation in government over the next decade,” said Laurel Brodzinsky of California Common Cause, one of the sponsoring organizations. “These bills ensure that the process is transparent, participatory, and driven by the community, rather than politicians.”

If the legislation goes through the entire Legislature and is signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, it would indeed be a major improvement. However, there is an anomaly that needs to be addressed.

The new measure would not apply to the five counties that already have redistricting commissions: Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside, Fresno and Kern. And the legislative measures that created those five commissions contained an important difference.

In those counties, commissioners must reflect partisan voter registration data. That means Democrats dominate commissions in Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and Fresno, while Kern’s commission is more divided.

There is no such requirement in the new legislation, nor should there be. The state redistricting commission is carefully crafted not to favor either side, and that principle must prevail in local commissions as well, including the five counties that would be exempt from the new law.