Belatedly – and only after they had lost control of Congress to Republicans – the national Democratic Party grasped the impact of how state legislatures redraw congressional districts after each decennial census.
A consortium of Republican and conservative interest groups had methodically set out to capture state legislatures and governorships in anticipation of redistricting after the 2010 census.
It was very successful, especially in Midwestern and Southern states, and the 2011 round of redistricting bolstered the GOP’s control of the House of Representatives it had won in 2010.
With the next round of redistricting only a few years away, Democrats are fighting back, mostly in the courts, and trying to undo some of those gerrymanders, with uncertain outcomes.
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It’s a different story in true-blue California as its politicians look ahead to the next redistricting after the 2020 census, which will be conducted by an independent commission. If anything, it will strengthen the Democrats’ overwhelming control of the state’s largest-in-the-nation congressional delegation and both houses of the Legislature.
Redistricting was a political football in California for decades.
When Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature but had to contend with Republican governors, after the 1970 and 1990 censuses, political deadlocks shifted redistricting to the state Supreme Court, which appointed special “masters” to draw new districts.
In 1980, when Democrats controlled everything, they grabbed as many seats as possible. The late Congressman Phil Burton, who controlled congressional redistricting at the time, called his contorted districts, including one for his brother, John, “my contribution to modern art.”
Republicans sponsored a referendum that placed the redrawn districts before voters, and they were rejected. But then-Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators simply passed another, slightly revised, version.
Democrats were back in control after the 2000 census, but for many reasons, including the threat of federal intervention by a Republican-controlled White House, the two parties agreed to maps that froze the numerical status quo, thus ignoring demographic changes that would have benefited Democrats.
The obviously political, albeit bipartisan, nature of the 2001 maps fueled media criticism and sparked two ballot measures that took redistricting from the Legislature and gave it to an independent commission, which did the required cartography after the 2010 census.
The commission was forbidden to consider partisan impacts, so it concentrated on demographics, particularly major changes in the state’s ethnic makeup that had been ignored in 2001. The political effect of the new maps, however, was to expand Democratic-held seats, in part because the Republican Party’s share of voter registration had plummeted.
Looking ahead to 2021, it’s unlikely that the successor commission will make big changes in the 2011 maps, simply because California hasn’t been changing very much.
Population growth has been relatively mild, less than 1 percent a year, and only slightly higher than growth in the nation as a whole. California would be fortunate not to lose one of its 53 congressional seats to faster-growing states such as Texas.
The state’s inland areas, such as the Central Valley and Southern California’s “Inland Empire” are growing faster than coastal communities, so there’s likely to be some shift of legislative and congressional seats eastward.
Revised maps probably will mean more legislative seats for Latinos who are now the state’s largest ethnic group. Thus, Democrats will likely gain as well, because of a continued Republican voter registration decline, and make their two-thirds “supermajorities” in both legislative houses permanent.