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Ray Haynes

Is the California Redistricting Commission Continuing the Time Honored Process of Gerrymandering in California?

Every ten years, the Constitution of the United States dictates that the population of the states be counted by the federal government. After the count in done, the federal government determines the number of Congressional Representatives each state will receive. In the early 1900s, Congress set the maximum number of representatives at 435, and since the time, the process of determining the number of representatives assigned to each state has been called “reapportionment.” That is, Congress does it best to make sure that each seat has the same number of residents, so Congress takes the total population of each state, and divides that by 435 to reach the number of people that should be in each district. It then “apportions” a number of districts to each state according to its percentage of the total population. If a state loses population, or doesn’t grow as fast as other states, it loses Congressional seats, and those seats are “reapportioned” to the faster growing states. In that way, Congress makes sure it carries out its Constitutional mandate to be sure the seats in the House of Representatives properly reflect the population of each state. 2021 was the first time in history that California lost a seat.

Once the reapportionment of seats to the states is complete at the Congressional level, Article 1, Section 4 of the US Constitution places the determination of the lines of each district in the hands of the various state legislatures. This is the process of redistricting. The Constitution placed the “redistricting” process in the hands of the Legislature, according to Federalist No. 45 (Madison), in order to make sure that every member of Congress would have to, at least once every ten years, visit their state legislators to discuss the future of their jobs. Madison believed this was a way to keep the members of the House of Representative beholden to the state legislators. Members of the House, to protect their jobs, would have to at least listen to the state legislature. A high ideal, indeed, if that were ever possible.

Soon after the creation of the redistricting process (in 1792, to be exact, the first year of the redistricting process), the Federalists in Massachusetts, who had the majority of the Massachusetts Legislature, put a state legislator named Eldridge Gerry in charge of the redistricting process. Gerry was a very smart politician, and knew how to draw the districts to make sure the Federalist Party in Massachusetts would keep its majority. One district was so strangely drawn that a member of the opposition in Massachusetts declared it looked like a “salamander.” Another member of the legislature declared “That’s not a salamander, it’s a Gerrymander.” And hence, the time honored process of gerrymandering was born. In legislatures throughout the country, political majorities around the country, including those in California, drew the districts for Congress and for the Legislature to benefit themselves.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was the common wisdom among Republican political experts that the only way Republicans could get a fair shake in the redistricting process would be with a commission independent of the Legislature. It didn’t matter what the US Constitution said (that is, that only the State Legislatures had that power), California needed an “independent commission” to get fair districts. So these political experts set about to create that independent commission by initiative. That initiative was defeated the first time it was tried, but finally passed in 2008, and used the first time in the 2011 redistricting process. At that time, California had 53 members of Congress, and 19 of them were Republicans. After the 2012 election, after this supposedly “fair” redistricting, the number of Republican in the California delegation fell to 15. By the end of the decade, that number had fallen to 9.

Under the lines just drawn, according to 538, that number could fall to 7 in 2022. A very biased Democrat dominated Legislature could not have done a better job.

Redistricting is the most political activity of any political body. It determines jobs and power, so those whose jobs and power are affected by the process make sure they control the process. In California, the California Redistricting Commission is anything but independent. The staff to the Commission is picked by the Democrat Secretary of State, and the information passed on to the part time Commissioners is controlled by the full time staff, who are controlled by the Democrat Secretary of State. Of course, neither the Commissioners nor the staff (unlike the Legislators who used to draw the lines) receive a single vote from the voters in the districts they draw. The Commission is controlled by insiders, by information controlled by insiders, whose entire mission is to make sure the Democrats control the process without any accountability to the voters.

In the gerrymander of 1981, Republicans took their case to the voters by a referendum, and got the maps thrown out. Today, there is no political recourse for the gerrymander of 2021, and that map has solidified the majority of the Democrats in the Legislature and in California’s congressional delegation like no other map in the past. It doesn’t matter that the Commission was initiated by Republicans, it has created a gerrymander that benefits the Democrats. The Commission was a bad idea in 2008 when it upset the delicate balance established in the Constitution, that is, placing the matter of redistricting in the hands of the State Legislature. Today, California has an unaccountable bureaucracy controlling unaccountable political appointees, who then enact a map that cannot be challenged by the voters.

It was Republican ignorance that established the Commission, and now Republicans are paying the price for that ignorance.