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Posted at 12:47 PM ET, 01/13/2011

The political perils of California's redistricting process

By Aaron Blake

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This is the seventh in an occasional series that focuses on the decennial redistricting process in key states. We call it "Mapping the Future". The series aims to look forward to how the maps in these states could be drawn and what the best and worst outcomes for each party might be. Today we take on California. (And make sure to check out the first six installments: Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts and Ohio.)

Predicting how a state will draw its new congressional districts is often a fool's errand. (Hmm, what does that make The Fix?)

But nowhere is that the case more than in California.

That's because the drawing and approval of the state's 53 districts this year is in the hands of 14 people. They are mostly amateurs, not political pros and they're not supposed to have any regard for incumbents, which means they could do just about anything.

If you're a member of Congress from California, that's a very scary proposition.

"When you go from a system that allows incumbents to draw districts that favor themselves to one that disallows considering incumbents at all, you're bound to have some incumbents paired together and some open districts," said Tom Bonier of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, which advises Democrats on the redistricting process.

Added GOP consultant Dave Gilliard: "There's a good chance that the vast majority of the congressional districts in California are not going to resemble what we have right now."

The new set-up comes courtesy of Proposition 20, which passed in the November election. Previously, the state turned over power to draw state legislative districts to this sort of bipartisan panel but Prop. 20 added congressional districts to the mix this year, and the new panel is getting started as we speak.

The 14 members of the panel are compromised of five Democrats, five Republicans and four voters with no party affiliation. They were picked out of a group of 30,000 applicants and range from a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau to a ranch owner.

Many observers expect a large amount of upheaval, but since there are so many districts and the process is largely brand new (Arizona has a somewhat similar system with citizens drawing the districts), there's really no way of knowing what they'll do.

We can, though, venture a few educated guesses:

1. It seems likely that there will be some increase in the number of competitive districts. The last round of redistricting brought one of the most effective incumbent-protection gerrymanders in the history of redistricting. In 53 districts over ten years, only one -- ONE -- district has changed hands between Republicans and Democrats. And it only switched once.

The committee doesn't necessarily need to try to draw competitive districts -- its mandate only requires that it draws "communities of interest" together -- but it may try to anyways. And even if it doesn't, it's nearly impossible for the districts to be drawn any less competitively than they are now.

2. A number of incumbents are likely to have their homes drawn into the same districts. That's a setup that could lead to incumbents running against each other or, to avoid that situation, running in districts where they don't live (which is legal). More ambitious observers think this could happen to as many as one-quarter of the state's delegation.

With 53 districts and a requirement that the panel doesn't take incumbents into account, it would be very odd if two of them were somehow not drawn into the same district. And the number of odd-shaped districts in big cities and elsewhere (many large rural districts stretch out from the big population centers in an awkward fashion) in the current map means that there is plenty of room for change if the panel wants to create a so-called "good government" -- i.e. logically shaped -- map.

3. There is unlikely to be a large shift in the number of Democrats and Republicans in the state's delegation. The state currently has 34 Democrats and 19 Republicans, which pretty accurately reflects the Democrats' level of dominance in the state. Even if the map is drastically altered, the many urban districts are likely to remain Democratic and the rural districts should largely stay Republican.

That doesn't mean there won't be changes, though. Republicans and Democrats who know the map say Republican Reps. Dan Lungren, Mary Bono Mack, Buck McKeon and Ken Calvert could be in more trouble. (All four are already in districts that have moved significantly towards Democrats in recent years and went for President Obama in 2008.) On the Democratic side, Reps. Jerry McNerney, Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa, who both had close races last year for their Fresno-area seats, could find themselves with a tougher districts.

But even if Republicans wind up losing or gaining a few seats on the commission-drawn map, it's probably a win for them. Without the commission, Democrats would control the process (they have both chambers in the state legislature and the governor's mansion) and would be able to draw whatever map they wanted to.

4. The map could well be drawn by a court in the end. If the panel cannot agree on a map or, for example, doesn't draw enough districts where a majority of residents are racial minorities, the process could go to the courts and wind up in the hands of a court-appointed map-drawer.

"The commission is so oddly put together, it's probably going to be a court map," ventured one Republican strategist who knows the situation in the Golden State.

Either way, the drawing of the map would not be in the hands of the incumbents, and sources say many incumbents are just now waking up to the possibility that their districts will be significantly different next time they run in 2012.

Members of the delegation didn't like the ballot proposition in the first place, for obvious reasons. But Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who is in charge of the Democrats' redistricting efforts, said the commission isn't accountable to voters.

"I think it's a prime example of people who don't like what 's going on looking for an easy fix," Thompson said. "You saw the same thing with term limits."

Thompson also downplayed the possibility of major changes in the state's delegation, noting that it didn't feature many changes after the 1991 round of redistricting, when a court drew the map.

But not everyone is so serene, and there are several good reasons for that disquiet.

First, the state is chock full of assembly members and state senators who have had almost no opportunity to move up to the federal level over the last decade. Second, California has term limits, so many of these state legislators will be out of jobs in 2012. And third, members of Congress could be taking on lots of territory where they might now be as well-known as one of their opponents.

All of it adds up to a much more competitive California in 2012. Open seats and incumbents being paired up in even a few districts would be a marked change for the state, but most agree that it could go much, much further than that.

At long last, California is a state worth watching.

By Aaron Blake  | January 13, 2011; 12:47 PM ET
Categories:  Mapping the Future, Redistricting  
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