Vote Yes on Proposition 20: Redistricting of Congressional Districts

This is the first part of a series of posts giving recommendations on California’s propositions. This post recommends a “yes” vote on Proposition 20, which gives the power of redistricting congressional districts from the state legislature to a Citizen’s Redistricting Committee.

Proposition 21 will be the subject of the next post in this series.


California has 53 congressional districts, the most in the entire nation. Of these districts, 34 are represented by Democrats and 19 by Republicans.

This ratio is almost exactly the same as it was in 2002, when California’s Democrats and Republicans agreed to a bipartisan gerrymander that would protect the representatives in both parties.

The gerrymander succeeded. At the time of redistricting 33 of California’s congressional districts were represented by Democrats. Since then exactly one district has changed parties: California’s 11th congressional district. In the 2010 midterms, as a great wave of seats appears poised to change parties for the third election in a row, it is quite possible that California will pass four elections in a row with exactly one seat switching parties. Meanwhile, outside of California, a total of 74 seats have switched hands from one party to another.

The process responsible for this strange phenomenon is called gerrymandering. In gerrymandering, legislators draw the lines of congressional districts so that they can be elected easier. They may draw a district so that a previous opponent no longer lives in it (this actually happened with Barack Obama). Republicans may split a Democratic city into four districts and combine the parts with Republican suburbs or rural areas, creating four moderately Republican districts. Alternatively, they may pack together as many blacks and Latinos as possible into one Democratic district, thus creating three safe Republican districts. Democrats do similar tricks.

In gerrymandering, communities of interest are ignored for political concerns. Districts may combine places that have nothing together in common. California’s 11th congressional district is one such example:

Here rich Bay Area suburbs are combined with Central Valley farmland to create a convoluted shape that looks somewhat like a strange animal.

The advent of software and computers makes gerrymandering ever easier. This is a proposed gerrymander by one user at swingstateproject. Take a special look at congressional district 10 – the pink one. Congressional district 10 goes from Berkeley and Richmond…

…right into the Sierra Nevada:

…And How Proposition 20 Fights It

Proposition 20 is a proposal to prevent such grotesque gerrymanders as the one above. It will shift redistricting from the hands of the legislature to a special “Citizens Redistricting Committee.” This committee will be composed of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four independents. Districts approved by the committee must make sure to combine communities of interest and be geographically compact (i.e. their shapes should look somewhat normal).

Californians should vote yes on this proposition. Today politicians draw the districts that will elect them. This process is inherently a conflict of interest; politicians will always pay more attention to their own interest than to the interests of the people in the districts. This is not because politicians are evil, but simply because the incentives end up this way. A Citizens Redistricting Committee will take this power away from them. It will put the interest of the people in these districts above the interests of the politicians.

Citizens redistricting committees are not perfect. Iowa, for instance, produces very compact and non-gerrymandered districts using a nonpartisan committee. New Jersey, on the other hand, has a similar committee but produces fairly gerrymandered districts. This is because New Jersey is a much more complicated state than Iowa. California’s districts may end up looking more like New Jersey’s and less like Iowa’s, simply because California is more like New Jersey than Iowa.

Still, this is probably better than what is currently happening, when politicians draw districts with very little regard to the interests of the people inside them. California’s districts may not end up looking picture-perfect under a citizen’s redistricting committee, but at least they will be probably better than the districts under the current system. If Proposition 20 fails, California might pass ten more years without a single gerrymandered seat changing hands.

That is why I heartily recommend a “yes” vote on Proposition 20.


P.S. Here is the most gerrymandered district I have ever seen on swingstateproject. The district is congressional district 46, the orange-colored one which stretches along the coast from the middle of Orange County into Los Angeles. It then stretches an arm into inner-city Los Angeles:

This district doesn’t look that bad in terms of compactness, although it certainly is shaped somewhat strangely. What really makes this an amazing gerrymander is the totally unrelated communities it combines.

Congressional district 46 starts at Compton, Los Angeles and ends at Huntington Beach, Orange County. Compton has a median household income of $41,993; Huntington Beach has a median household income of $115,011. Compton is  64.9% Hispanic and 32.2% black, with 2.7% belonging to other races; Huntington Beach is around 68% non-Hispanic white, 16.8% Hispanic, 10.4% Asian, and 0.8% black. Compton probably gave President Barack Obama over 90% of its vote; Huntington Beach Republicans have a 45.8% to 28.5% registration advantage over Democrats.

If there are any two places in the nation that should not be put into one congressional district, Compton and Huntington Beach probably fit the bill perfectly.

This entry was posted in California and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Vote Yes on Proposition 20: Redistricting of Congressional Districts

  1. centauri says:

    If I were a Republican, or a true swing voter, or someone who hated all politicians equally, I would wholeheartedly support this initiative. In the nation without political parties envisioned by the Founding Fathers, I would back it without a second thought. I would support it if we had multi-member districts, like some more modern democracies do. I would accept an agreement whereby California and Texas would both undertake this reform.

    But the problem is, I hate the present-day Republican Party. And as a member of Swing State Project, I understand the practical consequence of transferring redistricting authority from the Democratic-controlled legislature to an “independent” commission: 3-8 more Republican seats in the House of Representatives.

    As you can tell, I am strongly leaning NO on Prop 20. Having read your articles here and at SSP, though, I respect you as an analyst. If you think it is worth your while, I would like to hear from a Democratic perspective why redistricting reform is worth the opportunity cost of 5 fewer Republicans in Congress.

    • inoljt says:

      I am indeed a regular at swingstateproject; in fact it’s my favorite political site out there. When I post these gerrymanders from SSP it’s partly out of admiration of the hours of hard work it takes to make gerrymanders like that.

      From a Democratic perspective, one might say that gerrymandering may turn out to backfire. Under a fair drawing – rather than 2002 Democratic CA gerrymander – Democrats would probably have something like five more seats in CA today. Gerrymanders don’t always turn out perfect, especially in complex states like CA. Just look at the Republican gerrymander failure in PA.

      One could also say that gerrymandering creates safe – and therefore crazy – Republicans. CA’s Republican representatives are certainly pretty far-right right now. More competitive districts might moderate them.

      And there is also something to be said, as people have discussed in SSP, about how gerrymandering creates corrupt and bad Democratic politicians.

      But you are right in the end. The truth is that this will probably help Republicans overall.

      I support this proposition out of pure self-interest. I don’t want Compton and Huntington Beach to be in the same congressional district. I don’t want my community to be in the same congressional district as a totally unrelated place. I’ve looked at gerrymanders at SSP – and my community is never, never drawn in a congressional district that makes sense. It’s in a nonsensical district right now, and it’ll probably continue to be in a ridiculously shaped district if this proposition doesn’t pass.

      So while I do vote strongly Democratic, I also think there is something to be said for principle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s