California politicians used to joke that the state’s U.S. House delegation had less turnover than the Soviet Politburo. It’s funny because it’s true. Only once in 265 races from 2002 to 2010 did a district’s representation flip parties. Incumbents held onto all but one seat they vied for in a general election. That’s because like most politicians around the country, they controlled the maps laying out the boundaries of their districts.
In 2010, California voters stripped lawmakers of their authority over redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional lines to account for demographic shifts, and awarded that power to an independent citizens’ panel. By the 2012 elections, the group’s work had done exactly what it was supposed to: create competition for seats that had long been safe. After the 53 new districts were revealed, 14 House members decided not to seek reelection or lost their race in November, resulting in a 26 percent turnover in the state’s delegation.
“You’ve had voters shoehorned into districts for the sake of maintaining incumbency, and we aren’t doing that in California anymore,” says Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan advocacy group. “That’s probably what would happen everywhere if you had fair redistricting.”
Legislators control the process in most states, using the centuries-old tradition of gerrymandering to ensure job security for politicians already in power. In every congressional race from 1964 to 2012, at least 85 percent of incumbents nationwide retained their seats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and data compiled by Bloomberg.
A handful of states—Iowa, Washington, Idaho, and Arizona among them—have undertaken redistricting reforms. Yet most continue to give party leaders some say over the final maps. New York’s legislature recently approved a constitutional amendment, which will go before voters in 2014, to create a 10-member redistricting commission. However, lawmakers would pick eight of its members.
No state has come as close as California to getting partisan politics out of legislative mapmaking. Advocates for fair elections say the state’s reform could be a model for others, leading to more competitive races. And because representatives whose constituents are disproportionately Republican or Democratic are under less pressure to find middle ground on legislation, more competition could produce a House that’s much less polarized. At least theoretically.
After a push by former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who clashed with the Democrat-controlled legislature, and GOP activist Charlie Munger Jr., a physicist and son of Berkshire Hathaway’s vice chairman, voters approved a 14-member citizens’ board to oversee maps for state and federal legislative districts. Under the aegis of the state auditor’s office, California allowed active voters continuously registered for five years with the same party (or as an independent) to apply. Lawmakers, public officials, and their immediate family members were ineligible. So were legislative aides, lobbyists, party staffers, and political donors who gave more than $2,000 in any year of the previous decade.
More than 36,000 people submitted applications for the $300-a-day part-time positions. The agency pored over required essays and conducted interviews. Eventually, the state auditor randomly drew names of three Democrats, three Republicans, and two independents. That group then picked the remaining two Democrats, two Republicans, and two independents. Among those chosen: a retired high school principal, an architect, a chiropractor, and an independent bookstore owner.
In February 2011 the full board set about drafting new boundaries. Its charter called for districts of roughly equal population with compact, regular shapes that respected city and county lines, as well as so-called communities of interest. That meant commissioners tried to group together people with shared economic and social features, such as race, religion, sexuality, commuting habits, and household income. “We thought about it the same way you would think about a neighborhood, what makes up a neighborhood,” says Commissioner Cynthia Dai, a consultant from San Francisco.
The board wasn’t allowed to consider incumbents’ home addresses or look at voters’ party registration. It did take into account 20,000 written comments and testimony from more than 2,700 residents who spoke at several dozen public hearings. Based on their input, and under the guidance of an outside consultant who helped draw the lines, the panel released its new maps in August 2011.
The number of districts didn’t change, but their boundaries were drastically different. The commissioners erased a skinny 200-mile-long district that Schwarzenegger had called the “Ribbon of Shame” because it was drawn to hug the central coastline, an area full of Democrats, and to exclude the right-leaning ranchers who lived inland. Ten incumbents were displaced, their homes newly located in districts where they’d have to square off against each other if they decided to run.
That’s what happened to 15-term Congressman Howard Berman and his colleague of 15 years, Brad Sherman. Their homes in greater Los Angeles ended up in the same district, and the men almost came to blows during a debate as they fought for the seat last November. Sherman won. “The most offensive gerrymander of the last decade has been the preservation of white, liberal seats around Los Angeles to the downside of Latino seats,” says Rob Stutzman, a GOP consultant who served in Schwarzenegger’s administration. “The fact that you had Berman and Sherman drawn together is a great example of what should have been done a decade ago.” The panel combined territory from their old districts to create a new one composed mostly of Latinos. Democrat Tony Cardenas prevailed there, becoming the San Fernando Valley’s first Latino congressman.
Democrats maintained their sizable edge. They won 38 seats, compared with 15 for Republicans. But Justin Levitt, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who runs a website tracking redistricting issues around the country, says the board stands as “the best example against the incumbent protection plan that was in place before,” because it’s driven by people who “don’t have incentives to pay back into the political system.” It will take another couple elections to know whether straighter lines on a map can keep sending entrenched politicians home.