Polling places are open for early voting throughout San Diego County.
Signs showing the way to polling places in San Diego County. Photo by Chris Stone

By Sameea Kamal and Jeremia Kimelman | CalMatters

Another week, a little closer to California’s independent redistricting commission finalizing new congressional and state legislative districts ahead of its Dec. 27 deadline. 

The commission is trying, but struggling, to wrap up maps for 52 congressional districts. Its work is being especially closely watched this year because the state is losing one district due to slower population growth. Nationally, that will have an impact on whether Democrats retain their narrow majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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That’s because in other states, Republican legislatures and governors are drawing districts that favor the GOP, including in states that added seats from the census. Among them is Texas, but the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit to block the use of maps that it says disenfranchise minorities. 

Here’s how congressional redistricting is impacting partisan control in California, Texas and across the U.S: 

California’s Congressional Naps 

Commissioners had planned to finish up revisions to the congressional districts Monday night. Instead, they decided to keep working on them, while also reviewing state Senate districts. 

“I had hoped that we would be able to land the plane,” said J. Ray Kennedy, a San Bernardino County Democrat and international elections observer who is presiding over commission sessions this week. “We were not in the end. We still have some outstanding issues.”

Chart shows impact of redistricting in California and Texas

One area of contention: To group “mountain communities” together, earlier versions of maps showed a district along the Eastern Sierra starting at the Oregon border and going all the way down to San Bernardino. In response to comments from the public, the commission split the district, but remains stuck on whether to put Mono, Inyo and Alpine counties with the Modesto area, or with Roseville.

Placing those counties with Roseville would have a domino effect on the Sacramento region. In the latest map, Sacramento and West Sacramento were not split among different districts.

One issue that has recurred throughout the mapping process: Having to weigh one community of interest’s request over another. And while public input is meant to guide the process, it’s often conflicting. 

On Monday night, callers from San Jose — including the city’s mayor — voiced their discontent with the city being split among four districts.

Mayor Sam Liccardo said that doing so would undermine the city of San José’s diverse neighborhoods relative to richer and more influential suburbs.  

“San Francisco and Oakland, the other two large cities in the Bay Area — both which are substantially smaller in population than San José — have proposed districts that will ensure their representatives in Congress will overwhelmingly represent their city,” Liccardo wrote to the commission. “San Joseans certainly deserve this much.” 

A much smaller community has come up time and time again during the congressional mapping: Old Fig Garden, in Fresno County.

While it has only 5,477 residents, moving it makes the difference between increasing the Black voting age population in a Fresno-Tulare district, or increasing the Latino voting age population, with a minor decrease in Black voters. 

The larger question, however, in the Central Valley is whether there are two strong Voting Rights Act districts — ones with a majority of non-white voters — or three weaker ones. 

But while it can seem that communities may be pitted against each other, the commission also takes into account “‘coalition districts,” where different minority communities may vote similarly enough to be grouped together. 

Responding to criticism of some odd pairings in Northern California, two commissioners said they were based on all the data and feedback.

“I always see it as an opportunity to get to know your neighbor,” said commissioner Alicia Fernández, a Republican from Yolo County. “Get to know a new viewpoint and hopefully work together.”

“There’s no way we can make it perfect,” she added. “We’re 14 people coming together and doing the best we can.”

As Goes California? 

Prior to the independent commission in 2011, redistricting entailed a lot of partisan battles over the boundaries. After a number of failed efforts, starting in 1982, by both parties to create a commission of some kind, voters created one in 2008, but just barely: 51% approved the measure, while 49% opposed it.

California is one of eight states where redistricting is fully done by an independent commission. In seven states, the new congressional districts are being drawn by Democratic-controlled Legislatures, while Republican-majority Legislatures are drawing them in 20 states. 

That includes Texas, where the Republican legislature and governor have approved districts that bake in a GOP majority in its U.S. House delegation after the 2022 election, with at least 25 of 38 seats. Currently, Republicans hold 23 of 36 seats

Texas gained two seats in the 2020 Census, while California lost one. And while much of the Lone Star State’s population growth was driven by people of color, the maps give white voters effective control of both new seats, according to the Texas Tribune. 

That’s led to at least five legal challenges the maps face, including the one from the Department of Justice. “In enacting its 2021 Congressional and House plans, the State has again diluted the voting strength of minority Texans and continued its refusal to comply with the Voting Rights Act, absent intervention by the Attorney General or the federal courts,” the complaint states

The National Outlook

Texas isn’t alone in using redistricting to adjust or maintain power dynamics. In multiple other states, lawmakers are drawing congressional districts that likely mean easy Republican wins

In North Carolina, where the Republican-controlled legislature draws the maps, the state’s Supreme Court delayed primary elections from March to May next year due to lawsuits challenging the new districts. The Democratic governor does not have the power to veto the maps — and the U.S. Supreme Court won’t weigh in on gerrymandering cases

In California, should the preliminary maps stand, 40 of 52 House districts would favor Democrats, according to one analysis, and six would be competitive. Several Democratic representatives are leaving office, which further opens the door to Republican gains. The latest: Rep. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach announced Thursday he won’t seek reelection in 2022.

“It’s too early to tell what’s going to happen in California, but I think based on past history, California’s commission is going to build a fair amount of competition in whatever map they pass,” said Samuel Wang, director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

Across the rest of the U.S., however, most states are less competitive

That’s prompting criticism of the makeup of California’s commission: Requiring the same number of Democrats and Republicans on the panel is unrepresentative of the state, where Republicans are outnumbered nearly two to one among registered voters, argue Democratic consultant Steven Maviglio and others.

To win final approval, a map must get a “yes” vote from at least nine of the 14 commissioners – at least three of the five Democrats, three of the five Republicans and three of the four with no party affiliation. If no set of districts for Congress, state Assembly or state Senate gets the minimum number of votes, commissioners must keep debating until one does. 

The independent commission “reduces California’s clout on the shaping of Congress. We are unilaterally disarmed,” Maviglio said. “States with Republican majorities are doing their best to make sure Republicans control Congress.”

Take Georgia, for example, where two competitive districts won narrowly by Democrats in 2020 were collapsed into one in suburban Atlanta, while in Utah, Democratic Salt Lake City was split up among four Republican districts, according to the New York Times.   

And while redistricting will help determine the balance of power in Congress, partisan gridlock will likely continue to block much significant legislation.

Wang noted as one example the Senate filibuster rule, which requires a supermajority of 60 senators to cut off debate and vote.

“Step one is representation that reflects the wishes of voters, and I think California does a better job than almost any other state in doing that,” Wang said. “But step two is those legislators being in a position of being productive in Washington. Going from voters’ wishes to a functioning government is complicated. There’s a couple of weak points.”

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