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Can California Redistricting Reform Change Congress?

An extraordinary, nonpartisan experiment in redistricting on the left coast.

If I taught journalism, the final project would have students write an article about municipal bonds. The assignment would be a reality check: As a profession, journalism is so difficult nowadays that only those young people who have the drive and style needed to accurately enliven the second-most boring subject in the news universe — municipal finance — have any chance of a significant career. If you can make bond covenants sing, you might earn a journalistic living in an age when people dislike paying for news, and countless millions of blockheads write for no money.

But even I have limits. I would never make a student (or, except in emergency, an experienced journalist) undertake a story about the most boring subject in the universe of news, legislative redistricting, because redistricting is tricky.

Dull as it can be to family members and other normal people, redistricting is wickedly alluring to a certain type of journalist who seems to feel it's important, simply because it can determine who makes our laws. Many of these misguided scribes even think that redistricting is interesting, accompanied, as it is, by complicated corruption, legerdemain and conflict. For this type of untethered reporter, there's a literary bonus, too: Every time you write about redistricting, you get to explain the provenance of the word "gerrymander."


In reality, of course, redistricting has been proven to be a news soporific of amazing potency. Once a journalist begins to explain the difference between reapportionment and redistricting, he feels his power to entrance growing with every paragraph written. Soon enough, each metaphor for the animal-like shape of a district seems more necessary than the last. Before long, the poor reporter has been sucked into a black hole full of snakes, gooney birds and census data, never to be heard from or read again.

So what could make me take the gigantic risk of attempting an entire column about redistricting?

Only California. By itself, redistricting is a sleeping pill. But grind it up, dissolve it in a glass of innovation and add a dash of West Coast oddity, and you have an elixir that will be served first in Sacramento, but then may intoxicate the nation and its politics, changing Congress into a more reasonable and effective institution.

Really. Most sarcasm aside.

As usually practiced, redistricting is a matter of screwing the other guy into the ground, as hard and far as you can, while you have the chance, because in 10 years, the other guy may do it to you. In most states, the screwing is done by the political party that controls the state legislature, which passes a law that draws new legislative and congressional districts, according to the results of the national census done every 10 years. The governor then usually signs or vetoes the law that sets the new district lines and establishes who gets to vote for whom. According to a guide published by The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, in 22 states, entities other than the legislature — usually called commissions — play a role in redistricting, but, mostly, they're fig leaves. Legislators and other officeholders have a role in selecting, guiding or working with commission members, and politics is usually the name of the game.

Because redistricting is generally conducted by the type of conscience-impaired partisans who inhabit the legislature, the results are often heinous. Redistricting isn't an example of the fox guarding the henhouse; it's worse. As Texas state Sen. Jeffrey Wentworth told State Legislatures magazine, "Allowing state legislators to draw their own district boundary lines is a lot like letting children fill in their own report cards."

Here's the horror of redistricting, in handy overgeneralization: If you are (for example) a Democrat in charge of redrawing district lines, you create as many "safe" Democratic districts as possible, meaning you design districts that have such a high percentage of Democratic voters that it would be all but impossible for any Republican to win. If you can't make all the districts safely Democratic, you start drawing as small a number of Republican districts as possible, each of them chockablock full of Republicans. You don't make these districts red; you make them screaming, fire-engine red. These districts will always elect Republicans; there just won't be very many of them. In this way, Democratic dominance of the legislature can't really be challenged until the next census, and most likely, it won't happen, even then.

And, of course, vice versa, when Republicans control the state government.

The process of creating safe legislative and congressional seats is only the framework for the affront to democracy hatched during most redistricting efforts. Almost always, an array of smaller, targeted assaults on decency will be wound into the redistricting worm-ball. For instance: If you're in the controlling party, you can draw the lines so longtime, beloved incumbents from the other side no longer live in districts they have represented since the dawn of time. Or you can slide lines around, putting two longtime, beloved incumbents in the same district, meaning one won't be around very long. Or, the lines can be made to wiggle like hooked fish, until a promising political challenger's home is inside a district he can never win. Poor minority communities can be split into tiny shards and scattered among districts, making relatively powerless people totally powerless.

For the cutthroat-politics aficionado, the possibilities are ... entrancing.

If neither major party has full control of the state government, the parties sometimes compromise on redistricting. In these cases, rather than screwing each other into the ground, the parties draw up districts designed specifically to make both Republican and Democratic incumbents absolutely, positively invulnerable — and to screw everyone else, including the general population of the state. This is what happened in California in 2000. The Brennan Center guide explains it deftly: "Ultimately, the two parties effectively decided to call a truce, and to keep the incumbents — of both parties — as safe from effective challenge as they could.

"Democrats paid Michael Berman, a redistricting consultant, more than $1.3 million to create the resulting redistricting plan. In addition, thirty of California's 32 Democratic members of Congress each gave Berman $20,000 in order to custom-design their individual districts for safety. As Rep. Loretta Sanchez explained: 'Twenty thousand is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million (campaigning) every year. If my colleagues are smart, they'll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in. Those who have refused to pay? God help them.'"

Usually, the politicians involved in these and many other kinds of redistricting shenanigans suffer little blowback from their vile conniving. Redistricting is arcane and complicated, the most boring subject in the media universe. Complaining comes off not just as whining, but as tedious whining. And before you know it, redistricting is come and gone, not to show its greasy, leering face for a decade.

But in California, a strange combination of do-gooder activists, citizen anger, a celebrity governor and a wealthy Republican scientist have made redistricting, for the first time in its existence, interesting.

John N. Friedman is now an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, but he spent the preceding two academic years at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied health policy and redistricting, including the new redistricting rules introduced in California when voters approved Proposition 11 in 2008. It seems hard for him to keep the excitement out of his voice when he talks about the California redistricting reforms. "I really think they're striding into the unknown in an exciting way," he says.

For better or worse, the new California redistricting system goes to previously unheard-of lengths to take the drawing of state legislative district lines out of the hands of politicians and political professionals who usually redistrict. A commission of 14 citizens, being set up by the state auditor, will draw the lines. Commission members could be public spirited saints of bipartisanship, politically ignorant dolts or some other subspecies of human disconnected from the no-holds-barred combat of party politics — but disconnected they will be. People with conflicts of interest cannot serve, and here, the word "conflict" is, to say the least, broadly construed.

According to the State Auditor's Web site, no one who has (deep breath here) been appointed to, elected to or a candidate for a California congressional or state office; served as an officer, employee or paid consultant of a California political party or of the campaign committee of a candidate for California congressional or state office; served as an elected or appointed member of a political party central committee; been a registered federal, state or local lobbyist; served as a paid California congressional or legislative staffer; or contributed $2,000 or more to any California congressional, state or local candidate can serve on the redistricting commission.

The process for choosing commission members also has reform zealotry in its DNA.

An Applicant Review Panel (three certified public accountants chosen randomly by the state auditor) reviews applicants and chooses the 120 "most qualified." After interviews with the panel, the list is whittled down to 60, 20 of them Democrats, 20 Republicans and 20 of neither party. The Legislature does now play a role: In a process analogous to jury selection, legislative leaders are allowed to "strike" or veto 24 of the 60, leaving 36 potential commission members, equally split among Democrats, Republicans and people who are registered in neither party.

From that point on, though, the process is all but hermetically sealed against political vapors, with eight committee members — three Democrats, three Republicans and two others — chosen randomly from the 36 remaining candidates. Those eight committee members pick six more members from the 28 remaining finalists, again evenly split by party or lack thereof.

In the end, 14 people — five Republicans, five Democrats and four people who are of neither party, all with no substantive connection to state or federal politics — will control the legislative districts of California.

The California commission process is clearly exceptional. Friedman calls it "a foray into uncharted territory" that could produce a highly positive outcome, if 14 professional, independent-minded people are named to the new commission and draw lines in ways that deal fairly with communities of interest, particularly minority groups, and create more districts in which Democrats and Republicans have approximately equal shots at winning. On the other hand, Friedman says, "it could really be a disaster, if you have people with very little experience with the political process dealing with this complex task. They could wind up breaking up communities of interest in weird ways."

I'm usually not one to favor radical experiments in electoral democracy that include possibly disastrous results. I know of no authoritative research that suggests competitive elections result in officials who operate in a more effective, moderate or bipartisan way. (See: Bush vs. Gore 2000.) The unintended consequences of reform, I know well, can be worse than the original problem. (See: Term limits, legislative.)

But I live in California, where the government is not just dysfunctional, or highly partisan or unresponsive to the will of the people, but broken, corrupted, often nauseating in its disregard for the general good. The Legislature can't even pass budgets, much less deal with underlying structural problems that have devastated state finances and undermined education and transportation systems that were once the envy of the country and world.

Californians have decided to roll the redistricting dice in hopes of making the state Legislature a less partisan and more solutions-oriented place, and I not only agree with the gamble; for the good of the state — and I think the country — I'm ready to double down, and set not just the Legislature, but the congressional delegation on its redistricted ear.

California redistricting reform has an odd provenance that includes strange political bedfellows. It followed the failure of a previous attempt at reform pushed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and has been supported by the governor and backed by a wealthy Republican, Charles T. Munger Jr., who also happens to be an experimental physicist and the son of Charles T. Munger, a vice chairman of legendary investment firm Berkshire Hathaway Inc., a significant donor to Republican federal candidates and, reportedly, a billionaire. The younger Munger says his father isn't involved in the California redistricting efforts. ("My father has eight children: three Democrats, three Republicans, one decline to state and one lives in England," Munger says. " ... It certainly is not the case that my dad controls his children's political ventures.") But even if all the Mungers of America were GOP fire-breathers who supported redistricting reform with all the money at their disposal, Proposition 11 would be anything but a Republican plot; it was drawn up by Common Cause and has been endorsed by newspapers across the state, the League of Women Voters and a host of other goo-goo groups generally not considered part of the political right.

Munger says he was sensitized to government dysfunction during work in Sacramento on education matters and became interested in redistricting during Schwarzenegger's failed attempt at reform in 2005. Once Proposition 11 was drafted, he turned into one of its largest funders, giving a reported $1 million-plus to the campaign for the measure. Munger is indeed a Republican and admits that, in California, redistricting reform will be viewed negatively by some in the Democratic Party, which holds a strong legislative majority and, until now, enormous influence over how districts are drawn. But he says his interest in changing how legislators are chosen isn't partisan; it's aimed at better government and spawned by the legislative disaster abetted by the last redistricting (or, as he calls it, "the gerrymanders of 2000").

In states where Republicans control the legislature, Munger says, the kind of redistricting reform he supports in California might work against the GOP's interests, and, he says, "I frankly think this is a good reform for all states."

There is a real possibility California's energetic form of redistricting reform — currently limited to the Legislature — may spread. Munger has put his money behind another ballot initiative that would give the commission created by Proposition 11 authority over the redistricting of California's congressional districts. The campaign has to hand in signatures to qualify the measure by March 22, but Munger sounds confident that'll happen, which would place the measure on a 2010 ballot and make it at least theoretically possible that California's 53 congressional districts (which could become 52, depending on the results of the 2010 census) will be drawn not by Nancy Pelosi's Democratic friends and allies in the state Legislature, but by 14 people she's never heard of.

Even if that happened, Democrats wouldn't necessarily lose congressional seats. California is a blue state overall.

But if angry voters give California's new redistricting commission the power, commissioners may just decide to put some hyperpartisan congressional fossils of both parties into districts where new and more reasonable candidates have a chance to win. Candidates who are not usual suspects may actually be elected sometimes. Redistricting may go from being the most boring subject in the news universe to something that keeps Speaker Pelosi up at night.

Of course, just because California's taken a blind leap into the redistricting night doesn't mean other states will necessarily follow, creating a redistricting reform cascade that changes the mechanics and tenor of congressional politics. Even if they did, they couldn't put those new redistricting plans in place for another decade. But across America, voters are angry and looking for hope for a less partisan and vicious future. And when America wants something new, it tends to look west.

Just think about the effects that California innovations — from The Beach Boys to the iPhone to the ruinous tax-cutting revolution started by Howard Jarvis — have had on America in the span of a decade or less. Think about Dick Nixon, going from a defeated California gubernatorial candidate to the White House in six years, and tell me this column has put you to sleep.

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