Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

A Brief History of Redistricting in California since 1970

By Janet Flammang

Federal and State Law
1) The U.S. Constitution mandates a decennial census for apportioning Representatives among the states.
2) The U.S. Supreme Court (Baker v. Carr, 1962) ruled that districts had to have equal population and compact and contiguous territory, and that a person could challenge, and seek judicial redress for, an improper redistricting plan.
3) The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensures that minorities have an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. Today, it protects all racial and language minorities, including African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders.
4) The California Constitution specifies that districts shall respect the boundaries of cities, counties, neighborhoods and “communities of interest” (i.e., “a contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation”). Each Senate district should be comprised of two Assembly districts, and Board of Equalization districts should be composed of 10 Senate districts. [Note: Neither partisan competition nor partisan proportional representation is required.]
5) Every decade, California redraws districts for Congress (currently 53), the state legislature (80 Assembly and 40 Senate), and the Board of Equalization (4) (a total of 177).

Political Players: Democratic Legislature, two D governors and 2 R governors, D and R Supreme Court, the people

1970s Redistricting: Plan by CA Supreme Court Special Masters (R Gov. Reagan vetoed D legislative plan)
Potential compromise was derailed by alleged dirty tricks in a special election where Richard Allatore (D-LA) lost. Rs wanted the map redrawn to keep this district, Ds balked, Gov. Reagan vetoed the plan, which went to the State Supreme Court. Chief Justice Wright postponed the controversy until after the 1972 elections, which used redrawn congressional districts, but unequal state legislative districts. 1972 elections increased Ds in Assembly, Senate, and Congress. Court-appointed Special Masters drew up the final plan. Results: Ds fared well in elections in the 1970s and trusted the courts to be fair to them in redistricting.

1980s Redistricting: Democratic Legislative Plan and Protracted Partisan War
Democratic dominance: D Gov. Jerry Brown, D legislature, D congressional delegation, and D state Supreme Court (Chief Justice Rose Bird, 6D and 1R). Rs worked with Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College to produce computerized redistricting, and threatened lawsuits and referenda if the D plan did not get R approval. Rep. Phil Burton (D-SF) drew up a plan with Michael Berman, brother of Assemblymember Howard Berman (D-LA), providing safe seats for friends, payback to enemies, and tripling Latino seats. (Bruce Cain worked as a consultant to Allatore, chair of the Assembly Elections and Reapportionment Committee.) Starting in June 1982, Rs introduced a series of redistricting ballot measures. The Bird Supreme Court put new congressional districts into effect immediately (as in the 1970s), and upheld the D plan.  In November 1982 voters rejected a (Republican, Common Cause) referendum calling for a bipartisan redistricting commission. In 1982, the legislature agreed by 2/3 (precluding another referendum) vote to a compromise  plan, which was signed by lame-duck Gov. Jerry Brown. In 1983 R Assemblymember Don Sabastiani’s initiative was taken to court by Ds for dilution of the minority vote (dismissed) and violation of the once-a-decade provision (upheld). In November 1984 voters rejected R Gov. Deukmejian’s referendum calling for a redistricting commission drawn from retired Appeals Court Justices. Results: Plan benefited Ds and Latinos, and strengthened both D and R incumbents.

1990s Redistricting: Plan by CA Supreme Court Special Masters (R Gov. Wilson and D legislature deadlocked)
In 1990, Rs elected Gov. Pete Wilson and sponsored two reapportionment initiatives. In 1986 Rs gained control of the (Lucas) Supreme Court (Bird, Reynoso and Grodin not reconfirmed). Now Rs had a “double veto” (Gov and Supreme Court) on the D legislature’s redistricting plans. Results: Many competitive races in the 1990s.

2000s Redistricting: Democratic Legislative Plan (aka “Incumbent Protection Plan”)
Democratic dominance again: Gov. Gray Davis, Assembly 50 D, 30 R, and Senate 26 D and 14 R. According to former Assembly Republican leader Jim Brulte, Rs bluffed that they were going to submit redistricting to a referendum, and out of sheer exhaustion, both sides agreed to retain the same partisan safe seats. Results: In 2002, Ds lost 3 seats. In 2004, not one of the 153 congressional or state legislative seats on the ballot changed party hands.

Overall, redistricting in California since 1970 has increased the representation of ethnic minorities but has had little effect on the partisan composition of legislative and congressional delegations. More important factors are incumbent advantage, partisanship, high cost of elections, court challenges, and single member districts as opposed to multimember districts.

Janet Flammang is a professor of political science at Santa Clara University.  She gave this presentation at the Oct. 14, 2011, meeting of the Public Sector Roundtable.

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