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 wielded redistricting authority for itself and the state’s congressional delegation, and every 10 years its power players would carve up California to help themselves, their parties and their loyalists gain or retain office.
The districts they created often defied cartographic or demographic rationality. Michael Berman, who died recently, was long regarded as a savant who could make or break political careers in how he drew lines for his brother, long-serving legislator and Congressman Howard Berman, and others in their orbit.
After one 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 balked at signing redistricting bills drafted by the Legislature’s dominant Democrats, the task was assumed by the state Supreme Court.
Nevertheless, gerrymandering became so blatantly unfair in California that voters, when given the chance, stripped politicians of redistricting power and shifted 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 during the preceding decade.
The 14-member commission, with five members from each major party and four no-party-preference voters, did its work after the 2010 and 2020 census and while not everyone was happy with what it wrought, the process each time was reasonably transparent and fair.
Blatant Local Gerrymandering
Gerrymandering has been no less blatant at the local level, particularly in larger counties, cities and school districts, where politics often overshadow civic duty.
Beginning in the last decade, there have been efforts to make redistricting fairer and more responsive at the local level. Local governments have been compelled to elect their governing bodies from districts, rather than at-large, and the Legislature has decreed 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 district with more than 500,000, to use independent commissions. Another bill tightened up criteria for how districts should be shaped.
“The process of redistricting is crucial for determining representation of communities in government for the next decade,” said Laurel Brodzinsky of California Common Cause, one of the sponsoring organizations. “These bills ensure that process is transparent, participatory, and driven by the community, rather than by politicians.”
If the legislation makes it through the entire Legislature and is signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, it would be, indeed, a major improvement. However, there is one anomaly that should 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 one important difference.
In those counties, the commissioners must reflect partisan voter registration data. That means Democrats dominate the commissions in Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and Fresno, while Kern’s commission is more evenly divided.
There’s no such requirement in the new legislation, nor should there be. The state redistricting commission is carefully designed not to favor either party and that principle should prevail in local commissions as well – including the five counties that would be exempted from the new law.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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