California’s Ambitious Experiment on Redistricting Reform Gets Nod from Harvard


  • Headshot of Dan Harsha Daniel Harsha

Like most states, the once-a-decade process of drawing new legislative boundaries in California was hardly an exercise in participatory democracy. The redistricting process was historically controlled by the state legislature and maps were drawn in secret, designed to extract maximum political advantage for incumbent officeholders. The results were clear. In 2002, the first election cycle for the US House of Representatives in California using the state’s then-newly adopted legislative boundaries, saw not a single incumbent in California’s 53-person large congressional delegation lose their seat. In fact, only one of the state’s redrawn congressional districts was even considered competitive (the incumbent still won).

“Politicians picking their voters, rather than the voters picking their politicians, distorts and undermines the integrity of our electoral process,” said Stanley Forbes, a member of California’s independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, winner of the prestigious Roy and Lila Ash Innovations Award for Public Engagement in Government. “Gerrymandering distorts fair outcomes by minimizing the votes of some while increasing the potency of others,” added Forbes, a bookstore owner from Esparto, a small town in rural Yolo County, California during a presentation before Harvard’s Government Innovations Award Program National Selection Committee earlier this year at the Kennedy School.

Across the state, a growing frustration with gerrymandering set in, as redrawn legislative districts ignored growing demographic changes and communities were divided among multiple legislative districts both in the state house in Sacramento and in the Capitol in Washington. “Though partisan redistricting is very harmful to American democracy and deeply disrespectful to its citizens, politicians of all stripes find it difficult to resist the temptation to abuse their power by manipulating electoral maps to favor themselves or their party,” said Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship and academic dean of Harvard Kennedy School.

Previous efforts to enact redistricting reform through a number of different ballot propositions were rejected by voters in the 1980s and 1990s. After the state’s 2002 gerrymandered districts were approved by the state legislature, a renewed push to reform redistricting in California was undertaken. “We brought together business, labor, environmental, civil liberty, and civil rights groups to talk about what was possible in transforming government so that it would be functional,” recalled Kathay Feng, the executive director of California Common Cause and a tireless advocate of redistricting reform in California.

Proposition 77, a 2005 ballot initiative, would have shifted responsibility for drawing legislative boundaries from lawmakers in Sacramento to a panel of retired judges. Voters, questioning the expense and necessity of triggering a mid-decade redistricting and voicing concern about vesting responsibility for drawing new maps in a small group of retired judges who were not representative of the state’s diverse population, soundly defeated the measure.

Unbowed by this string of electoral defeats, advocates went back to the drawing board and made two key changes that would make redistricting reform more palatable to voters: first they substituted Proposition 77’s panel of independent judges for a nonpartisan commission of California citizens and limited the scope of the commission to state-level officeholders to ward off potential political opposition from members of Congress. Placed on the ballot in 2008, voters narrowly approved approved Proposition 11, the Voters FIRST Act, which authorized the creation of a new 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission charged with drawing district lines for the State Senate, Assembly, and State Board of Equalization. Two years later, voters went to the polls again and approved Proposition 20, the Voters FIRST Act for Congress, which expanded the commission’s role to include California’s congressional seats.

The size and selection process of the commission was no accident. With 14 members, the commission was decidedly larger than other, earlier attempts at establishing redistricting commissions elsewhere in the country, which usually had only a handful of commissioners. The larger California body was designed to minimize the risk that individual commissioners would have outsized influence over the commission’s deliberation, according to Michael Li, a senior counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and a site evaluator for the Innovations in American Government Award Program at the Ash Center.

Membership on the commission, which is composed of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four members who declined to state their political affiliation, was overseen by the independent Bureau of State Audits. Nearly 30,000 Californians started the application process, which included rigorous financial disclosures and supplemental essay questions outlining their professional backgrounds, knowledge of California’s diversity, and querying prospective members on why they wanted to serve on the commission.

During 2011, commissioners traveled throughout California, holding dozens of open meetings where they heard input from community members on how they hoped to see new district lines drawn. Many in the state’s political elite scoffed at the prospect of average citizens successfully drawing new maps that could survive a court challenge or weather intense public and political scrutiny. “Politicians have resisted reform, saying line drawing is inherently partisan or needs experts,” said Forbes during his presentation at Harvard.

“There was widespread expectation among many elected officials and political insiders heading into the redrawing of maps in 2011 that the commission would fail,” added the Brennan Center’s Li. “Either the commission would deadlock or the maps they produced would be struck down by courts or commissioners, as ‘amateurs’ would prove unable to live up to the requirements of the job.”

Bipartisan consensus was hardwired into the commission’s rules for approving maps ahead of the 2012 elections. Writing in theHarvard Law and Policy Review, Angelo Ancheta (MPA 2000), a law professor at the University of Santa Clara in California and a member of the commission himself, explained how, “the commission’s voting structure further requires multi-partisan agreement among its members: to approve a major matter, including approving the final maps, the commission must obtain “yes” votes from at least three Democratic commissioners, three Republican commissioners, and three commissioners who are not affiliated with either major party.”

With active citizen participation, and a framework that encouraged consensus among its members, the commission set out to redraw the political landscape in the country’s largest state. By and large they succeeded. “There has been a lot of turnover and change as a result,” said Forbes. In 2012, the state saw nine highly-contested House races, with a number of senior members of Congress either opting to retire or losing their reelection bids. Thirty-eight new members were elected to the State Assembly. Remarking on this sharp increase in newly competitive seats across California, Li said that “although the commission was expressly prohibited from drawing maps based on political outcomes, the maps drawn by the commission nonetheless improved competitiveness by returning community-focused districts, roughly tripling the number of districts considered competitive.”

While California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission may be the most ambitious attempt at redistricting reform, advocates are hoping that it won’t be the last. Cities and states across the country are looking to California’s experience in nonpartisan, citizen-driven redistricting as an antidote to partisan gerrymandering. “As in many other states, we’ve been troubled by the levels of partisanship and failures at problem-solving in our legislature and in Congress, but there’s little turnover among lawmakers and very few competitive elections,” said Bob Warner, a government reform advocate from Pennsylvania active with Fair Districts PA, a coalition of civic groups pushing the state legislature in Harrisburg to adopt a redistricting commission similar to California’s. “We think California’s model would eliminate the partisan element of recent redistricting efforts and begin to restore some sense that voters are choosing our representatives.”

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering later this fall, more attention will surely be paid to California’s successful experiment in redistricting reform. “The California model…has proven that people can draw fair, transparent, non-partisan, and non-gerrymandered districts,” added Forbes.

Watch the California Citizens Redistricting Commission Present at Harvard Kennedy School