California’s political representation has rarely matched the diversity of California’s population. Last fall’s election, however, has transformed demographics in the state legislature and congressional delegation, adding greater numbers of Latinos and women in particular. While many factors are at work, newly redrawn political districts have helped promote this change.
Women and people of color have been underrepresented in elected office throughout most of American and California history. As recently as the 2020 election, Latinos were particularly underrepresented, at 39% of the state’s total population and 30% of its adult citizens but 26% of state legislators and members of Congress; Asian Americans were 15% of the total and adult citizen populations but 13% of representatives. Just a third of representatives were women.
Despite these challenges, increasing numbers of women and people of color have won California legislative or congressional office over time, and the numbers jumped further in fall 2022 as five more Latinos (50 vs. 45) and two more African Americans (15 vs. 13) became representatives compared to 2020. The share of Latino and Asian American representatives is now nearing each community’s adult citizen population, and exceeds it in the case of African Americans. In terms of gender, the 2022 elections brought almost as many new women to office (21) as men (22), leading to a net gain of 9 across State Assembly, State Senate, and US Congressional districts.
The redrawing of district lines has played a role in these changes. The Federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) requires drawing at least some districts where voters of color have a legitimate chance to control the outcome. California law also compels its independent redistricting commission to keep “communities of interest” intact within district lines as much as possible; race and ethnicity are common ways of defining such interests. These mandates helped produce a record number of majority-Latino districts (48), as well as one more majority-Asian American assembly district and two new congressional districts with predominantly but not majority African American populations (which we define as 30% or more).
These districts proved vital for Latino representational gains. Fully 85% of Latino winners from last November’s elections represent districts with majority or predominantly Latino populations. Asian American and African American candidates also benefited, but the relationship was more complex. About half (48%) of Asian American representatives were elected from majority or heavily Asian-American districts, but two were elected from majority Latino districts and seven from majority non-Hispanic white districts. Likewise, while all three predominantly Black districts elected a Black representative, so did eight majority or predominantly Latino districts and two districts with non-Hispanic white majorities.
Redistricting has also helped elect more women, but in a different way. Because the state’s redistricting commission was not allowed to consider incumbency, it drew districts very disruptive to current officeholders, where more than twice as many incumbents did not run as in the previous election. These open seats helped alleviate the status quo bias that works against women candidates. Recent open seat races have been more likely to have at least one woman candidate (69% vs. 56%) and to elect a woman to office (47% vs. 33%). Put together, the share of women elected to office who won in an open seat more than doubled between 2020 (16%) and 2022 (34%).
Notably, open seats are less important to electing candidates of color, who benefit far more from diverse districts. If we define a diverse district as one where 30% or more of the voting-eligible population is made up of at least one nonwhite group, candidates of color were far more successful in such districts (80% winning in incumbent-contested, 75% in open) than in districts that were more predominantly white (30% winning in incumbent-contested, 33% in open), and open seats were not a significant distinction.
These changes in candidate demographics are technically side effects of the official policies that enable them. The California and federal laws that avoid splitting communities of color are designed to empower those communities, not necessarily to promote candidates of similar racial or ethnic backgrounds. Likewise, California’s law does not promote women candidates nor even seek to undermine incumbents; it forbids favoring incumbents, and women candidates are an important beneficiary.
Regardless, the outcomes are the same whether intended or not. As long as the current legal regime remains in place, racial and ethnic diversity is likely to expand in the state legislature and congressional delegation, along with the presence of women. While PPIC remains committed to tracking population demographics—most recently, immigrants, life expectancy, and birth rates—these demographics of representation are an important signal for whether population change is reflected in policy.