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Fairness and the California Redistricting Process
Oct. 14, 2011 Public Sector Roundtable
By Miriam Schulman
In August 2011, several elected officials throughout the state of California woke up in a different electoral district when the California Citizen's Redistricting Commission issued their final maps for new Congressional, State Senate, State Assembly, and State Board of Equalization districts.
Angelo Ancheta, a member of the commission, met with the Ethics Center's Public Sector Roundtable Oct. 14 to describe the group's process. Ancheta, director of the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center at SCU, spoke with mayors, special district representatives, city councilmembers, and other public officials who participate in the roundtable.
The group also heard from Janet Flammang, professor of political science at SCU, who gave a brief history of the often contentious history of redistricting in the state. “Overall,” she said, “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.”
The new redistricting commission was created by California Proposition 11, passed in November 2008. Ancheta explained that there were many critics of the previous redistricting, which was popularly dubbed "the incumbent protection plan."
Redistricting approaches vary among the states from citizen-led to legislative to judicial. The new California commission was required to be diverse in geography, gender, race, and ethnicity. They were charged with drawing new maps with districts that were equal in population and in accordance with the federal Voting Rights Act. To whatever extent possible, districts were supposed to be contiguous and keep together counties, cities, neighborhoods, and communities of interest.
In order to keep the process transparent and accessible, the Commission held hearings in all corners of the state in addition to posting drafts of maps online. They heard from individual citizens, civil rights organizations, good government groups, and members of political parties, although they were specifically prohibited by the proposition from considering incumbency or party-affiliation in creating the districts.
In terms of fairness, the commission faced several considerations. Because the federal Voting Rights Act governs all redistricting, certain districts could not be redrawn to result in lower minority representation than currently existed in the state. More generally, the act prevents local governments from discriminating against minority citizens, so the commission tired not to split high concentrations of minority populations into different districts.
Keeping "communities of interest" together was a special challenge, as definitions of such communities varied. "We heard testimony like, 'In this part of the valley, we’re really different from the folks across the mountain in the next valley.'" Ancheta said. Sometimes communities of interest would be very broadly defined—like the San Gabriel Valley or the Sierra Mountains—but these were such large territories, it was impossible to keep them together in a single district.
Ancheta is philosophical about the debate. "I think of what we're involved in as an experiment," he said. " What we came up with was not perfect, but it was a good way to go."
Judy Nadler, Center Senior Fellow in Government Ethics, moderator Angelo Ancheta, Commisioner
Miriam Schulman is the director of communications at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics