California redistricting a success says new study

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

(Photo Credit: CA Votes)

Up until seven years ago, California’s legislators decided amongst themselves how big their districts would be and what regions to include. The result was fragmented puzzle piece districts where the only logic to their creation was to give an incumbent their best shot at staying in office.

This came to an end in California with the passage of Proposition 11 in 2008, when citizens removed redistricting powers from the legislature and handed the duties to an independent 14-member commission of citizens tasked with drawing fair districts on the map. The goal, says commissioner Stanley Forbes, was to put an end to what had become a hijacked democracy. “The difficulty was that when incumbents draw the lines, they have two roles,” Forbes said. “One is to protect themselves, and the second is to hurt the other party any way they can.”

But just how effective was the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, wondered the League of Women Voters and the Irvine Foundation. To find out, the groups commissioned Dr. Raphael J. Sonenshein, Executive Director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at CSU Los Angeles, to do a comprehensive analysis and examination of the redrawing of 177 legislative districts last year, culminating today in the release of an 80 page report appropriately titled “When the People Draw the Lines: An Examination of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

“The report seeks to contribute to the historical record,” Catherine Hazelton of the James Irvine Foundation said. “It seeks to identify what worked and inform our understanding of how policy makers, voters and commissions can improve the process in years to come.”

“Given the newness and the difficulty of this process, the redistricting process was surprisingly successful,” said Sorenshein. “The process of selecting commissioners attracted a lot of public interest, and the commission took a massive amount of public input.”

Sonenshein brought a third party perspective to the topic due to his lack of involvement with redistricting, yet still was armed with the expertise required due to his experience with citizen commissions and public policy. While the redistricting process was a success considering the lack of money, staff, and short timeframe to complete the mapping, the system isn’t perfect.

“There were real problems that my report identifies,” Sonenshein said. “I think these must be corrected both for the next time in California, but also for other states, counties, and cities considering this very different way of doing redistricting.”

The primary problem was that more time and resources were spent selecting the commissioners than the commissioners actually spent deliberating over the drawing of districts. “They need greater opportunity to examine data early on before the commission even forms,” Sonenshein said. “There needs to be training for them in the issues they’ll be taking on, and they need assistance to absorb the public input that they receive at really massive levels.”

“The Citizens Redistricting Commission was a success in not only drawing 177 districts in only seven and a half months, but working to restore the public’s faith and trust in government through a transparent and open process,”  California Forward’s Caroline Bruister said. “In a comparative study of transparency of state governing processes in which the state received a B- overall, the citizen redistricting process received an A, with a score of 100 percent.”

California Forward is proud to be staying the implementation course with our partners such as the League of Women Voters of California and Common Cause to ensure that the lessons learned and best practice recommendations are delivered to the next set of Commissioners. We believe every vote should count, and the more fair and effective the Commission, the more representative our California democracy is. 


Matthew Grant Anson

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