By Eric McGhee
, policy fellow,
Public Policy Institute of California
This commentary appeared in theSan Francisco Chronicle
on Sunday, June 19, 2011
The preliminary maps of new legislative and congressional districts are out, and the result promises to shake things up in California.
California's current voting districts have been highly controversial. In 2001, the Legislature drew a set of sometimes bizarrely contorted districts in an effort to protect incumbents. To ensure this did not happen again, California voters adopted ambitious reforms with Propositions 11 in 2008 and 20 in 2010. The two initiatives established an independent citizens commission and, with it, a complex process for choosing commissioners and insulating them from the political establishment. The commission was encouraged to draw the districts according to a variety of "good government" criteria.
At this stage, the new California Citizens Redistricting Commission does appear to have drawn districts that are more competitive. Taking into account the difference between Democratic and Republican registration in a district, a competitive seat would be one where this gap never favors Republicans by more than five points nor Democrats by more than 10. This reflects the fact that Democrats are less likely to turn out to vote and more likely to cross party lines.
By this measure, here are the proposed changes:
- Assembly: 16 competitive seats, up from nine.
- State Senate: seven seats, up from three.
- House of Representatives: nine seats, up from four<.
Other definitions of a competitive seat suggest different numbers, but all show an increase under the new plans. Moreover, far from protecting incumbents, by chance alone the commission stuck many of them in districts with another incumbent of the same party: 32 out of 112 Democratic incumbents, and 13 out of 61 Republican incumbents.
The effects of the new maps are more muted in the Bay Area than in other parts of the state. All of the region's 34 Assembly, Senate and House incumbents are Democrats, and all of them fall in new districts that are at least nominally Democratic - most of them heavily so. No member of the Assembly or Senate who is eligible to run for re-election shares a district with another eligible incumbent. Only two sets of members of Congress (Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier, and Pete Stark and Jerry McNerney) are in this situation. Moreover, in both cases where incumbents share a district, there is a vacant adjacent district with a partisan complexion that at least one of the two could be comfortable representing. The real challenge will be whether these incumbents can introduce themselves to the parts of their new districts that do not know them well.
In short, the redistricting commission appears to have met some of the initial expectations placed on it. The final maps are due by Aug. 15. The next challenge for the commission is whether it can listen to the reaction to its initial maps and accommodate the most serious criticisms without losing track of its core objectives.
In voting to change the redistricting process, Californians have registered their unhappiness with the status quo in Sacramento. Only time will tell if this reform can put the state on a path to more effective government.