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No More Gerrymanders: California's Commission Plan versus the Fair Voting Alternative

by Fair Voting Plans, Lindsey Needham, Sheahan Virgin // Published November 4, 2011
GGbridge

Summary:

  • Lawmakers in California have recently passed a congressional redistricting plan as required by the U.S. Constitution.
  • The root of the worst problems associated with redistricting lies with winner-take-all elections, in which 50% + 1 of the vote guarantees 100% of the representation.
  • As part of an ongoing series, FairVote has produced a "super-district" plan designed for elections with a fair voting system. Fair voting systems are a constitutionally permissible form of proportional representation and, by allowing voters to participate in a meaningful election, are a far better way to achieve public interest objectives than winner-take-all elections.
  • FairVote's fair voting plan for California would result in more balanced representation and competitive elections.

The Political Context in California

California and the 2010 Census: From 2000 to 2010, California's population grew slightly, from 33.87 million to 37.25 million, for an increase of 10.0%, as compared to a rate of 13.8% from 1990 to 2000. This rate was roughly equivalent to the national average of 9.7%. As a result, California maintained its 53 seats, making 2010 the first Census since 1920 that the state did not increase the size of its U.S. House delegation. From 1920 through 2000, the state's number of House seats skyrocketed from 11 to 53.

Internally, population shifts within the state appear to help congressional Republicans, as slow-growing, Democratic-heavy urban districts and coastal areas failed to keep pace with inland Republican-leaning regions. Racially, California is a 'no-majority' state, with whites (40.1%) currently comprising a plurality. Asians (12.8%) posted the largest rate of growth of any group at just over 30%, while the Latino community (37.6%) - fast on track to becoming the most numerous group in the state - continues to increase appreciably as well. Blacks held steady at roughly six percent of the population.

Although Democrats controlled all levels of government in Sacramento in 2001, supermajority requirements in redistricting gave Republicans shared power over maps. The process was a protracted affair, with legal challenges by disenchanted Latino interest groups extending the process until January 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a June 2002 California U.S. District Court ruling against the plaintiffs. Fearing that a citizen referendum or a state Supreme Court packed with Republican appointees might overturn an overtly partisan map, Democrats decided to collaborate with GOP state legislators in order to secure the required supermajority. As a result, both political parties essentially signed off on a deal to maintain the status quo.

And the status quo is what Californians received. In the five elections since 2001 redistricting, the partisan composition of California's U.S. House delegation changed by only one (2002: 33D, 20R; 2004: 33D, 20R; 2006: 34D, 19R; 2008: 34D, 19R; 2010: 34D, 19R). During the same period, only a stunning two of 253 incumbent representatives (0.8%) lost their bids for reelection, while just 14 of 265 contests (5.3%) were won by less than ten percentage points; 233 of these 265 (87.9%) races were either blowouts (20%+ margin of victory) or uncontested.

With Redistricting, a New Way of Doing Business in the Most Populous StateAt its core, California remains a Democratic state, with Arnold Schwarzenegger's election to the governorship in a 2003 post-recall special election and reelection in 2006 being the latest examples of Republicans winning major statewide office. In light of numerous post-2003, statewide Democratic wins, however, Schwarzenegger's twin victories are better understood as anomalies attributable to his personal appeal and former governor Gray Davis' foundering, than as harbingers of GOP ascendancy. In 2010, for instance, big-name Republican candidates Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman lost their respective bids against U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and former governor Jerry Brown in two races the GOP had thought winnable but ended up losing by wide margins.  

At the U.S. House level, however, California's delegation in 2010 again saw no change in terms of partisan composition, as voters returned all 51 incumbents who ran for reelection and stuck with the candidate representing the incumbent party in the remaining two open seats. Such stasis was clearly at odds with the discernibly anti-incumbent and anti-Democratic national trend in 2010, although a few Democratic candidates, such as Loretta Sanchez of the 47th District and Jim Costa of the 20th District, performed far below their 2008 numbers. Yet while the Californian congressional elections to the 112th Congress were an aberration nationally, they nevertheless conformed to the state's post 2001-redistricting reputation for safe seats and commensurate political calcification.

This reputation for no-contest elections, which Governor Schwarzenegger famously captured with the quip, "We laugh at Putin in Russia...but there's more turnover in the Kremlin than...in California," caused voters to support recent ballot initiatives designed to reshape dramatically the way California draws its political boundaries. In 2008, a slim majority of voters approved Proposition 11, which took control of redistricting away from the state legislature and established an independent commission charged with crafting state legislative districts. In 2010, 61.3% of voters approved Proposition 20, which extended the jurisdiction of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CCRC) to include the drafting of congressional lines as well, and voted down Proposition 27, a measure designed to repeal the CCRC largely funded by the Democratic establishment.

California's Citizens Redistricting Commission and Its Work: On February 20, 2011, the Justice Department pre-cleared California Proposition 20, making the new commission's oversight of redistricting official. Although 2011 marks the first time in California's history that citizens, rather than state legislators, will draw district boundaries, California joins a handful of other states nationwide employing a redistricting commission.

Very specific rules, designed to ensure the process is bipartisan and independent, govern both the body's composition and its work. First, the fourteen-member commission must contain an equal number of registered Republicans and Democrats (five each), as well as four independents/no affiliation voters. Second, the selection process is multi-tiered - government auditors select eight of the members (3R, 3D, and 2 independent) randomly from a pool of voters, while these eight commissioners, in turn, select the final six individuals (2R, 2D, and 2 independent). Third, once the maps have been drawn, nine of the 14 commissioners must approve - three from each party and three independents/no affiliates. Finally, lobbyists or individuals having given more than $2,000 in political donations in a two-year cycle may not serve on the CCRC's staff.

Despite these precautions, the CCRC was ultimately accused of partisanship, especially during the contracts phase of the project. Republicans cried foul when the commission tapped what they believed to be Democratic-leaning firms to produce maps and provide legal advice regarding minority rights and voting power. Tom Del Beccaro, chairman of the California GOP, warned that the CCRC's selection of such firms "defeat[ed] the very purpose of the commission's existence."

On July 29, the commission approved preliminary congressional maps by a 12-2 vote, moving the draft plans to a 14-day public review stage. Employing a wide range of glowing superlatives, the commissioners extolled the CCRC's work as "extraordinary," "unprecedented," and "enriching," noting that its maps "portend[ed] a brighter political future for California." Two weeks later, the CCRC formally certified these maps on August 15 and forwarded them to the secretary of state's office, after another 12-2 vote.

Arguing the CCRC had produced congressional maps advantaging Democratic candidates, California Republicans wasted little time in organizing a voter referendum  to overturn the work of a commission they believed "political partisans" had "hijacked."  The GOP, however, dropped its initial plan in late September, citing inadequate fundraising and lackluster enthusiasm  among certain Republican members of the California U.S. House delegation, such as Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy; several GOP strategists contended the statewide referendum against the congressional map was a poor use of limited campaign resources.

Undeterred, however, dissenting Republicans, led by former U.S. congressman George Radanovich , joined minority voters to file suit on September 29 with the California Supreme Court, alleging that some of the CCRC's congressional boundaries were in violation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (1965). Republicans in the state have a history of working with black and Latino groups, recognizing that drawing districts with larger numbers of minority voters also produces surrounding districts that lean GOP. On October 22, the CCRC officially requested  that the state Supreme Court dismiss the lawsuit, saying it had met the constitutional requirements and Voting Rights Act obligations governing redistricting. Four days later, on October 26, the Supreme Court - without comment - unanimously rejected  the Radanovich suit as well as the GOP's request for an emergency stay that would have halted use of the maps.

The Fair Voting Alternative

Time for an Honest and Fair System: California's redistricting plan demonstrates the way in which the current system is inadequate: it fails to represent accurately the people of state. Even in states that employ an independent redistricting commission to redraw district boundaries, U.S. congressional elections are still problematic. The absence of partisan antics in the redistricting process does not lead us to a fair election process, as the underlying winner-take-all voting framework still ensures undemocratic results.

In contrast to the California redistricting commission's winner-take-all plan, the fair voting alternative actually puts voters first. Rather than use a winner-take-all system, which exaggerates representation for certain groups, FairVote has combined these single-member districts to form larger "super-districts." As an American form of proportional representation, this fair voting system will elect multiple representatives in each super-district and allow far more voters to elect a favorite candidate. As our analysis will demonstrate, FairVote's super-district plan with a fair voting system generates competitive elections in every corner of the state; it also allows for fuller representation of the political and demographic dynamics of geographical areas: what we call "shared representation."

Under the current winner-take-all system, candidates must receive over 50% of the vote to be sure of winning a seat. Consequently, substantial voting blocs are often left unrepresented. For instance, one party's candidate could get just one vote shy of the 50% threshold, and all of her voters would lose out on representation. Similarly, if a voter lives in a district that widely favors one party, that voter might feel like his vote does not matter, especially if that voter favors the less popular party.

With fair voting in super-districts, on the other hand, nominees from more than one party are nearly certain to represent a district, which enables a more accurate representation of the broad spectrum of political opinion. These multi-seat districts also lower the threshold for racial minority groups to select a preferred candidate of their own.

Several candidate-based forms of fair voting, notably choice voting and cumulative voting, have been upheld by the courts and fit well with our traditions. Choice voting systems, in which voters rank candidates in order of choice in at-large elections, helped break the power of urban political machines in New York and Cincinnati. It is used currently by Minneapolis in citywide elections. From 1870 to 1980, members of the Illinois House of Representatives were elected using cumulative voting, where voters can cast as many votes as there are seats. Using this fair voting system, nearly all of the districts elected both Democrats and Republicans in every election.

Our California plan upholds U.S. Supreme Court rulings on apportionment while providing fair representationand voter choice for California voters. Fair voting plans in super-districts are legal for congressional elections under the U.S. Constitution, but Congress would need to repeal a 1967 law mandating single-member districts. State and city governments often have the power to adopt fair voting systems under current law.

Winning with Fair Voting in a Super-District: From the 53 congressional districts in California, the FairVote proposal creates 11 super-districts: ten five-seat districts and one three-seat district. Each congressional seat still represents approximately 702,905 people, but with a fair voting system, representation is far more likely to reflect the political opinion and demographic makeup of the state. In a five-seat district, like-minded voters are assured of a representative if they consist of at least 16.67% of the electorate, and in the only three-seat district, like-minded voters are assured of a representative if they consist of at least 25% of the electorate.

California 2011 Redistricting Plan

 

 

California Fair Voting Plan with Super-Districts


 

 

Super-District Breakdown

Super-District

Number of House Seats

Population Per Seat

Threshold of Exclusion

Districts Used to Make SD

1

5

702,904

16.67% + 1

38, 40, 43, 44, 47

2

5

702,904

16.67% + 1

28, 29, 30, 34, 37

3

5

702,906

16.67% + 1

32, 39, 45, 46, 48

4

5

702,905

16.67% + 1

31, 35, 41, 42, 49

5

5

702,905

16.67% + 1

36, 50, 51, 52, 53

6

5

702,904

16.67% + 1

24, 25, 26, 27, 33

7

5

702,905

16.67% + 1

11, 12, 13, 14, 15

8

5

702,905

16.67% + 1

10, 16, 17, 18, 19

9

5

702,905

16.67% + 1

3, 5, 6, 7, 9

10

5

702,905

16.67% + 1

8, 20, 21, 22, 23

11

3

702,905

25% + 1

1, 2, 4

 

Partisanship Analysis: Based on the 2008 presidential election, California has a partisanship index of 58.3% Democratic. However, the CCRC's plan does not reflect the partisan split of the entire state. Based on district partisanship, the commission's plan would allocate Democrats 29 seats (24 safe and 5 lean) and Republicans 12 seats (8 safe and 4 lean) with an additional 12 districts that could swing to either party. To put this in perspective, the statewide Republican partisanship index of 41.7% should generally result in Republicans winning 22 seats, yet the California plan creates only eight absolutely safe seats. To win those 22 seats, Republicans would need to hold on to their four leaning seats, as expected, and succeed in 10 of 12 toss-up districts. This presents a daunting challenge for the GOP every election year, regardless of the party's national momentum.

California Plan's Partisanship Breakdown, Summary

 

Statewide Percentages

CCRC's Plan

Democrats

58.3%

24 Safe, 5 Lean

Republicans

41.7%

8 Safe, 4 Lean

Toss-Up

-

12

*Partisanship percentages are based on an interpretation of the 2008 presidential election. Our source for the data is from RedistrictingPartners.com The seats were allocated according to the following ranges: toss-up districts have a partisanship between 46% and 54%, leaning seats have a partisanship between 54% and 58%, and safe seats have a partisanship greater than 58%. This does not reflect incumbent advantages. Full district partisanship data located here.

In stark contrast, the FairVote super-district plan accurately represents the state's partisan divide, positioning each major party to win at least one seat in every super-district. Republicans would have a clear advantage to win 17 seats and be well-positioned to add between three to nine seats based on the quality of their candidates and the national partisan swing. Democrats would have a clear advantage to win 26 seats, a reasonable chance to add seven more and an outside chance of winning up to 36 seats.

FairVote's plan clearly offers a far more reflective representation of the state's political division than California's redistricting plan, which gives the Democratic Party a running start every election year. Fair voting also increases voter interest because almost all Republican and Democratic voters will be able to elect a candidate in their district, who represents their political views. Additionally, voters will have a real choice within their party's candidates, since each super-district election presents each party with a chance to win multiple seats.

Once in Congress, representatives from opposing parties would share constituents of super-districts and, therefore, have new incentives to cooperate on at least some legislative initiatives. There also would be more representatives bridging the gap that currently exists between the major parties, as fair voting means a more balanced representation of the left, right, and center. As far as competition, the California plan offers at best 12 competitive districts; in the super-district plan, every voter would experience a competitive election.

While these partisan breakdowns are based on the current two-party duopoly, the FairVote proposal would open the door for third-party and independent candidates, unlike the single-member district, winner-take-all plan. Because challengers to the major parties are rarely able to acquire over 50% of the vote, their backers are left typically unrepresented. Fair voting methods lower the threshold and provide third parties a better chance to win seats. Fair voting is not just fair for Democrats and Republicans; it is fair for voters of all political opinions.

FairVote's Super-District Partisan Breakdown

Super-District

Number of Seats

Threshold to Win

Partisanship (D)

Safe Seats (D)

Leaning Seats (D)

Toss-Up

Leaning Seats (R)

Safe Seats (R)

1

5

16.67% + 1

62.5%

3

0

0

1

1

2

5

16.67% + 1

66.8%

3

0

1

0

1

3

5

16.67% + 1

48.6%

2

0

1

0

2

4

5

16.67% + 1

51.3%

2

0

1

0

2

5

5

16.67% + 1

51.8%

2

0

1

0

2

6

5

16.67% + 1

51.8%

2

0

1

0

2

7

5

16.67% + 1

74.3%

3

1

0

0

1

8

5

16.67% + 1

61.1%

3

0

0

1

1

9

5

16.67% + 1

58.2%

3

0

0

0

2

10

5

16.67% + 1

45.6%

2

0

0

1

2

11

3

25% + 1

50.3%

1

0

1

0

1

Statewide

53

-

58.3%

26

1

6

3

17

*The seats were allocated according to the following ranges: toss-up districts have a partisanship ±4% of the threshold, leaning seats have a partisanship 4-8% greater than the threshold, and safe seats have a partisanship greater than 8% of threshold. This does not reflect incumbent advantages.


Race and Voting Power: When a racial minority group votes as a bloc and meets the threshold, it has the power to elect a strongly preferred candidate, although it may not choose necessarily a racial minority. California is one of the most racially diverse states in the country, yet the CCRC's redistricting plan does not reflect its demographic composition. To evaluate the racial impact of the California plan, we have tabulated the number of districts in which a racial minority group exceeds the threshold to win a seat (50% + 1 vote). For districts where a racial minority group is within three percent of the threshold, we have designated the seat as a strong "opportunity" to win.

The way the CCRC plan is currently constructed, white voters have a disproportionate advantage (32 seats + 2 opportunities, or 64%) to elect candidates of their preference, though their share of the citizen voting age population (CVAP) sits at just over 55%. The Latino community represents 23% of the state's CVAP but has opportunities to elect a preferred candidate in only nine districts (7 seats + 2 opportunities, or 17%). African Americans and Asian Americans may have a significant presence in some districts, which, combined with strong incumbents, can lead to victories for candidates of these racial groups. But these communities are not anywhere close to meeting the 50% threshold in any single district, which severely jeopardizes their chances of receiving representation in the state's congressional delegation. In an additional ten districts, no racial group meets the threshold or falls within our opportunity category, so racial minority groups have increased chances to elect preferred candidates, provided they can build a diversified coalition of voters.

California Plan Race Breakdown, Summary

CVAP by Race

Statewide

CCRC's Plan

White CVAP

55.4%

32 + 2 Opportunities

Black CVAP

7.3%

0

Latino CVAP

23.3%

7 + 2 Opportunities

Asian CVAP

12.0%

0

???

-

10

*Race data for each district can be found here

 

Though the CCRC plan makes significant strides to extend voting power to multiple racial groups, the fair voting plan offers opportunities more reflective of the state's racial composition. In the super-district plan, white voters have the voting power to win 30 seats (57%), while Latinos broaden their voting power to 11 seats (9 seats + 2 opportunities, or 21%). Unlike the CCRC's map, the fair voting plan also gives voting power to African Americans and Asian Americans. African Americans are well positioned to win at least one seat and make up more than half of what it takes to win a seat in four additional super-districts. Asian American voters jump from voting power in zero districts to voting power in three seats, with their numbers more than half of what it takes to win a seat in seven more districts. Both these racial minority groups and Latino voters would be competitive for many of the eight seats in which no racial group meets the threshold or falls within the opportunity category.

FairVote's Super-District Race Breakdown

Super-District

Number of Seats

Threshold to Win

White CVAP

Black CVAP

Latino CVAP

Asian CVAP

1

5

16.67% + 1

27.5%

16.3%

42.2%

12.2%

2

5

16.67% + 1

46.4%

11.8%

28.6%

12.0%

3

5

16.67% + 1

52.9%

2.7%

25.8%

17.4%

4

5

16.67% + 1

51.4%

8.6%

31.8%

6.3%

5

5

16.67% + 1

60.7%

5.5%

23.2%

8.6%

6

5

16.67% + 1

62.7%

4.4%

19.2%

12.3%

7

5

16.67% + 1

52.5%

10.7%

12.5%

22.3%

8

5

16.67% + 1

53.1%

4.2%

22.7%

18.3%

9

5

16.67% + 1

62.0%

9.0%

15.2%

11.1%

10

5

16.67% + 1

58.2%

5.6%

29.4%

4.5%

11

3

25% + 1

84.8%

1.7%

7.2%

2.9%

Statewide

53

-

55.4%

7.3%

23.3%

12.0%


Conclusion

California's plan is clear evidence that even an independent redistricting commission cannot alleviate the problems of our U.S. House elections. Although partisan gerrymandering receives the most attention, the undemocratic nature of our elections is endemic to the winner-take-all voting system - a structural issue the CCRC was not allowed to change. In this analysis, we have not touched CCRC's lines that were our building blocks; we merely changed the rules and showed that fair voting provides immediate dividends to all voters, empowering them to choose representatives who truly reflect their perspectives.

If the redistricting process paired with a winner-take-all rule continues, voters are likely to become disenchanted with our political system. Under California's redistricting plan and many others like it across the country, a vast amount of voters are left unrepresented. Many of these congressional elections lack competition or offer just two candidates to the diverse array of voters. It is clear that one candidate cannot possibly reflect the makeup of her district, as winner-take-all assumes, so we need an alternative to make full representation possible. By adopting fair voting methods in super-districts, we can attain a more representative democracy.