Gerrymander jigsaw

The politicians have created safe districts for their re-election. Now it’s time to redistrict in a fair way.

The Secretary of State’s Web page outlining proposed initiatives:
Proposed legislation regarding redistricting:
UC Berkeley’s Statewide

This is the only way Matt Rexroad has ever been able to make sense of this political game:

With a pen and paper, draw a grid of nine squares—like a tic-tac-toe game board. In each of the top three squares, write the letter R—for Republican. Across the middle row, write one R and then two D’s, to represent Democrats. In the bottom row, write three D’s.

Now, imagine it’s your job to divide up the tic-tac-toe board into three sections and determine how three people could best represent the nine squares. In doing so, you’ll be meting out political power.

If you simply group by rows, you’ll get one solid Republican section, one solid Democratic section, and a third section that is two-thirds Democrat and probably will be represented by a Democrat.

Group by columns, and you get no solid sections, but you get two with a 2-to-1 Democratic majority and one that leans equally Republican.

Seems no matter how you cut it up, this tic-tac-toe board is more Democratic than Republican—even in simple numbers, five D’s to four R’s—and should be represented by two Democrats and one Republican.

But then Rexroad, who formerly worked as legal counsel to Republicans in the state Assembly, suggests trying this: Group the first column together—two R’s and one D. Then, grab three D’s that make up the bottom right-hand corner. The remaining section consists of two R’s in the top row and the center D. Voilà! So, you’ve created two sections for Republicans and one for a Democrat—a Republican majority in a primarily Democratic grid. You’re a gerrymanderer!

This is where Rexroad sees the light bulb click on for many people.

Now, imagine a much larger grid shaped like the state of California.

Then, Rexroad explains that the squares don’t have to be filled with R’s and D’s. They could represent Hispanics and Asians, urban dwellers and rural people, or the wealthy and the poor.

The process of redistricting works just like that game board, except we’re dividing up the 36.8 million people who live in this state among the 173 legislators—Assembly, state Senate and U.S. Congress—who will represent us in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

“It’s great political chess. It really is,” said Rexroad, who worked on the most recent effort to redraw the lines.

The consequences of this strategic game, however, reach down to base American democratic principles—namely, that my vote is just as important as yours and no more important than another person’s. One person equals one vote.

Redistricting has been used, in the past, as a tool to disenfranchise voters. Minority and poor communities have been split, diluting their collective political voice. Members of one political party have been circumvented in order to garner power for another, such as in our tic-tac-toe board, where the four Republican squares received two people to represent them while the five Democrats were represented by just one person. As long as there have been political districts in this country—back to the 1700s—their lines have been finagled.

Right now, democracy is diluted for many Californians. Because of the way the lines were drawn four years ago, election outcomes in many districts—whether a Democrat or Republican would win—were determined long before voters went to the ballot box. Your vote may not count.

That’s because legislators get to do the dividing.

In a carefully brokered agreement between the two parties in 2001, California state legislators cemented their jobs in place. Instead of fighting against one another for more political territory—or fighting for voters’ best interests—they drew lines that ensured the same number of Democrats and Republicans would get elected over and over again. A district held by a Democrat in 2000 would continue to be held by a Democrat throughout the next decade. In a unique bipartisan plan, legislators preserved the status quo.

“It wasn’t Democrats vs. Republicans,” said Darry Sragow, who was in charge of Democratic Assembly campaigns during the four election cycles from 1996 to 2002. “It was incumbents. It was motivated by legislators who just wanted to keep their own seats.”

A 2001 memo written by the state’s Republican leadership says as much, outlining why Republicans agreed to a plan that left them in the minority.

The result of the deal: carefully jig-sawed districts that neglected the voters’ traits and concerns and instead ensured that incumbent politicians would neither have to campaign nor have to react to many of their constituents. With a guarantee that they would be elected again and again, politicians could effectively ignore large chunks of voters in their districts.

“It constituted an insurance policy,” Sragow said.

And it worked. Last year, alongside a presidential election and following a historic recall in which voters, presumably, expressed disgust with the status quo, 153 legislative seats were up for grabs in California. But not a single seat changed hands from one party to another.

Although Bush was trounced here—John Kerry won the state by more than 1 million votes—no Republicans lost seats. And despite Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s expectation that the recall wave he rode into office would continue to break, delivering a few more Republicans to the Capitol, no Democrats were wiped out.

Possible conclusions: The voters were extremely pleased with their political representation, or the system was rigged. Schwarzenegger, who personally had campaigned for Republicans in select races, determined that since his political sway had failed to effect change, the system must be broken.

Schwarzenegger included redistricting among the four pillars of his self-styled “year for reform"—alongside plans to revamp education, the state’s pension system and the budget.

He has endorsed an initiative spearheaded by conservative political activist Ted Costa that would hand the job of redistricting to a panel of retired judges. The governor also has asked Assembly Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy to carry two pieces of legislation on his behalf that would lead to the creation of an independent redistricting commission.

Others, including Senator Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, and California Chamber of Commerce President Allan Zaremberg, have proposed their own plans.

Fixing a district:Throughout the 1990s, the state’s 5th Senate District (shown in blue) was a solid chunk of Central Valley voters in Sacramento and San Joaquin counties who elected Democrats to office.

Courtesy Of California State Senate

{Efforts to redo the way we redraw: Last month, Costa wrapped up signature gathering on “The Voter Empowerment Act,” an initiative to put redistricting in the hands of retired judges. His effort, headed toward a special-election ballot or next year’s primary, outlines how the judges would be chosen and provides guidelines to how districts should be drawn. Schwarzenegger endorsed this initiative.

Zaremberg’s initiative is nearly identical but removes the sense of urgency called for in Costa’s. It also lays out in somewhat greater detail how the judges would be chosen and how they would operate. Signatures are still being gathered for the initiative.

Robert W. Harris, a lobbyist here in town, has submitted three initiative proposals that closely mirror Costa’s and Zaremberg’s. Each called “The California Fair Voting and Equal Representation Act,” they differ from one another slightly, such as requiring four judges on the panel rather than three.

Inside the Capitol building, Lowenthal has written up Senate Constitutional Amendment 3, which calls on a panel of 10 retired judges to help legislators select five California voters who then would take the reins of redistricting. And McCarthy is carrying both Assembly Bill 25 and Assembly Constitutional Amendment 3 on Schwarzenegger’s behalf. None of those has yet been discussed by legislators in committee.}

The flurry of fix-it proposals is unusual this year, because the redistricting process usually takes place only once per decade, following the national census. But proponents argue for a more immediate correcting of the 2001 gerrymander.

“If your kid gets a broken leg, do you wait until the next scheduled doctor’s appointment? No, you go to the emergency room right now,” McCarthy said.

Democrats initially shrugged off Schwarzenegger’s push to redistrict, saying that the voters simply don’t care about the issue. Senate Majority Leader Don Perata, D-Oakland, called the effort “dead on arrival.”

“I know that people don’t get up in the morning in my district, make coffee and then decide to worry about redistricting,” Perata told a Fresno newspaper in January.

It’s true. Repeat the word a couple of times—redistricting, redistricting—and prepare to see eyes glaze over. But reframe the issue in terms of voters’ rights and representative democracy, and the interest waxes.

A nonpartisan poll of 506 Californians, published by the San Francisco-based Field Research Corp. in February, found that 71 percent of those who claimed to have “some” or a “great deal” of knowledge of redistricting agreed that the most recent redrawing was flawed and gave an unfair advantage to incumbents.

A more recent poll, of 800 likely voters, conducted in April by the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College, showed 73 percent of respondents agreeing that it is a conflict of interest for legislators to draw their own district boundaries. Sixty-nine percent endorsed the idea of an independent commission.

In 2001, using sophisticated mapping software, legislators redrew the 5th District (shown in yellow) to ensure it again would be represented by a Democrat, by stretching its lines up in Yolo and Solano counties to grab more Democratic communities. The red area represents the district as redrawn by SN&R, using the same software: an example of how the district could look if “good government” redistricting guidelines were adhered to and no partisan political forces were at play. The orange area represents the overlap.

Courtesy Of California State Senate

Now, Democrats, such as Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, have warmed up to the redistricting effort but say that no redrawing should take place mid-decade.

Whether it appears on a special-election ballot later this year or on the primary ballot in 2006, or is hashed out on the Assembly floor, it appears that redistricting reform will happen. And the validity of your vote is at stake.

The memo was laced with a defeatist tone.

“Are these the lines that Republicans would draw if they controlled the process? Absolutely not,” wrote then-Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte in an e-mail to other prominent party members. “The Republican Party’ [sic] problem is that we lack the votes in the legislature to draw the kind of lines that we would all love to see.”

It was early September 2001, and legislators were immersed in the job of divvying up the state’s voters. News had trickled down to some county GOP representatives that negotiations had produced a map that changed little about the political landscape—a plan that looked a lot like Republicans being bowled over by a Democratic majority. While Republicans had cemented their seats, they’d lost the ability to gain numbers in the statehouse throughout the coming decade.

The county reps wanted to know how to spin the news so they didn’t come off to the party’s faithful looking as bruised as they felt. The e-mail contained an answer—a draft of talking points that laid out how settling, rather than fighting, would best benefit the party and would please President Bush.

Brulte wrote this in bold and underlined it: “Protecting the Republican majority in the House of Representatives was the top Republican priority in the 2001 redistricting.”

As the thinking went, if Republicans accepted the hit at the state level, they could barter a lockup of the 20 congressional seats they held. Many believed that 20 of 53 congressional seats were as many as Republicans could hope for from this Democratic-leaning Golden State.

“With 20 Republican seats in California, Republicans should control the House of Representatives,” Brulte wrote. “That means that California legislators gave President Bush the tools he needs to keep our taxes down, protect us from terrorism, ensure accountability in our schools, protect family values, and save us the billions upon billions of dollars that a Democratic Congress certainly would spend if they regained control of the house.”

State Republicans were taking one for the national team.

Democrats, too, were pleased with a plan that protected their majority in both the Assembly and the Senate at a time when they also owned the governor’s office.

But, to preserve the status quo, legislators had to perform some creative reconfiguring that left California voters divided by often-nonsensical lines. To do so, legislators and political consultants used sophisticated mapping software that allowed them to pick and choose chunks of communities, sometimes grabbing only a few households, and plunk them into districts based on voter-registration data or other factors.

Take the 3rd Congressional District, held now by Republican Dan Lungren. Throughout the 1990s, it was a long district straddling the Interstate 5 corridor in Northern California, stretching from Red Bluff down through Woodland and Davis and including parts of Sacramento County. It’s a dramatically different district now, resting primarily in Sacramento County. It wraps around the capital city, picking up its right-leaning suburbs—though none of its downtown Democratic core—and then reaches east to include Calaveras and Alpine counties and west in a crooked finger shape, pulling in pieces of Solano County near Vacaville and Dixon. It is a solidly conservative district where last year’s Republican primary battle was hard-fought but where Lungren, after emerging from that contest, coasted through the general election. He picked up 62 percent of the district’s votes, compared with his Democratic challenger’s 34.8 percent.

The People’s Advocate, Costa’s political-action organization, uses another congressional district—the 23rd—as an example of world-class gerrymandering. They call it the “Ribbon of Shame” and say it overtly favors Democrats.

A closer look at the 5th Senate District as redrawn by SN&R, using “good government” redistricting guidelines. The yellow areas show cities within the district.

It snakes along 200 miles of California coastline, from Monterey County down to Ventura County, encompassing liberal seaside communities and skirting more-conservative inland territory. It is never wider than five miles and is, in places, no broader than a football field, according to the People’s Advocate.

The serpentine shape was drawn for Representative Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, who previously represented a compact chunk of the state known as the 22nd. That district, until 2001, comprised much of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

Shannon Lohrman, a spokeswoman for Capps, said the argument can be made that the 23rd includes all coastal communities that share the same concerns and benefit from a single representative in D.C.

Lohrman also said that because Capps has no role in redistricting, she has no position on Schwarzenegger’s drive to redraw.

That’s not true of Capps’ Republican counterparts.

“Schwarzenegger already is at odds with them,” Rexroad said of D.C. Republicans. “They’ve drawn very safe seats, in which they’ll be elected over and over again.”

Any breakup of that safe gerrymander could throw wrenches into the campaign plans of risk-averse politicians.

Several Republican Congress members, including Representative John T. Doolittle, have spoken out against the redistricting plans, claiming that more-competitive districts will force politicians to play to the middle of the political spectrum and, in doing so, become more moderate.

Doolittle—whose 4th Congressional District begins in Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer counties and then stretches to the state’s northern border—has said Schwarzenegger’s plan could lead to a “watering down” of the Republican Party.

When Schwarzenegger visited D.C. earlier this year, he spoke with California’s congressional Republicans about his reform agenda, specifically the redistricting plan. Eight of the 20 members, including Lungren, later signed a letter of support for redistricting.

Tony Quinn, a former Republican strategist who now helps edit the California Target Book, the state’s annual guide to political campaigns, says Republicans supporting Schwarzenegger’s plan don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. The funny thing, he says, is that the Democrats don’t appear to either.

Take fewer safe seats for Republicans and couple that with the state’s huge population influx, and you have the potential for many more Democratic state legislators, perhaps even enough to constitute a two-thirds majority on one side of the state Legislature.

“[Congresswoman Nancy] Pelosi and other Democrats don’t have the sense to see that it would work for them,” Quinn said, adding that Democrats have opposed the initiative effort simply because of Costa’s partisan background and the Republican support for reform. “It’s just a knee-jerk reaction.”

Neither Costa nor other reformers claim to have mapped out the state to see whether redistricting under the proposed guidelines could, indeed, benefit one party over the other.

Ted Costa, chief executive officer of the conservative political-action organization People’s Advocate, aims to wrest the job of redistricting from legislators’ hands and give the job to a panel of retired judges. Governor Schwarzenegger endorsed Costa’s “The Voter Empowerment Act.” Costa hopes to put the initiative to voters on a special-election ballot. On Monday, he delivered petition signatures to the Sacramento County registrar.

Photo By Larry Dalton

They do, however, stress that breaking up an unfairly gerrymandered district would benefit the voters. I decided to draw my own lines to see if that panned out.

I started with a blank map of California. Thirty-some-odd million people floating around abstractly on the computer screen, gathered into regions and counties and cities, census tracts, census blocks, neighborhoods, streets, homes and apartment complexes.

I sat in an office at the University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies, using its copy of an expensive piece of geographic-based software called Maptitude. It comes packed with data from the 2000 Census and allows any user to call up detailed information about the state’s population. It’s the program that was used to draw the state’s current lines.

{UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies’ Statewide Database has received grant money to study the state’s redistricting process. Students, working under the institute’s director, Bruce Cain, have begun drawing and redrawing the state’s political lines, considering an array of factors. One student draws lines based almost solely on ethnic populations. One student aims to draw the most politically competitive districts possible. Another is looking at whether starting to draw districts from the top of the state down differs from doing so from the bottom up.

It’s Matt Rexroad’s tic-tac-toe board examined from every angle.

Those knowledgeable about redistricting say that if the task is handed to judges, they will have no choice but to look toward academia for assistance, as the courts did during the 1991 process.

And in California, there are two places to look: Claremont McKenna College’s Rose Institute or this office here at UC Berkeley.}

I set out to look at state Senate districts and began with certain guidelines in mind. I wanted to give thought to what cities and neighborhoods looked like, consider the issues affecting certain regions and question whether one area on the map had anything in common with another. I began as an idealist. It didn’t last long.

I had decided to concentrate on the state’s 5th Senate District, an area currently represented by Senator Michael Machado. The Democrat from Linden was re-elected last year in an ugly and expensive campaign against former Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto.

The 5th had been redrawn in 2001 in a manner that, it is now apparent, made it nearly impossible to knock Machado out of office. The district, once composed primarily of the conservative-leaning Central Valley, now encircles more liberal communities, including parts of some Bay Area cities. Its wonky boundary line stretches from southern San Joaquin County up to Vacaville and Fairfield, collecting in between parts of Sacramento and Yolo counties, including the unflinchingly liberal Davis.

“There is no real rhyme or reason to the district,” said Brian Seitchik, who was a spokesman for Podesto’s campaign. (Seitchik now works as Lungren’s spokesman in D.C.)

According to the state Senate, nearly 49 percent of registered voters in the district are Democrats, and only about 35 percent are Republicans.

“The only thing Democrats in Stockton have in common with Democrats in Davis is that they both vote Democratic,” Quinn said.

When drawing districts, there are criteria generally accepted as fair, often referred to as “good government” guidelines: Try not to split cities and counties, keep the districts compact and contiguous, and consider geographic boundaries and “communities of interest.” The goal is for like communities to be able to speak through, and be best represented by, one legislator. Also considered a fair guideline: to not consider the potential political outcomes.

Representative Lois Capps’ district was redrawn in 2001 to exclude any inland communities. The 23rd Congressional District—dubbed the “Ribbon of Shame” by critics—stretches 200 miles from Monterey to Ventura counties.

Courtesy Of California State Senate

Each of those ideals is included in the Costa/Schwarzenegger initiative.

Others argue that districts should be drawn to be as competitive as possible—meaning that voter registration of Democrats and Republicans differs by fewer than 7 percentage points. But that ignores the state’s increasing number of independent voters, said Jim Mangia, of Committee for an Independent Voice.

In drawing a new 5th, I did not look at voter-registration data—until I had finished the map. I also did not take into account ethnic communities.

Instead, I tried to group 850,000 or so people using the generally accepted “good government” guidelines.

I began by drawing a line around the city of Stockton, which historically has been a population core of the district. Then, I extended that line to include all of San Joaquin County.

The southern San Joaquin County cities of Manteca and Lathrop have a lot in common with cities farther south surrounding Modesto, so I extended the district down into Stanislaus County, encircling Modesto and several of its suburbs.

I specifically did not want to reach into counties farther to the east or into the Bay Area counties—Solano and Contra Costa—to the west. But I still needed more people. So, I looked north, up the Valley, into Sacramento County.

Knowing that Lodi, already in my district, is linked to Galt—both in community and commerce and, if nothing else, by the state Highway 99 transportation corridor—I pulled it into the 5th District. Continuing that process, but along the Interstate 5 corridor, I took in Walnut Grove.

In each case, I kept the new areas intact, taking entire cities or enveloping what the U.S. Census called “census places.”

I also dipped westerly to pick up Isleton and other rural chunks of Sacramento County that are sandwiched between San Joaquin, Solano and Contra Costa counties.

But my numbers were still off. And for a district to be bulletproof in the eyes of federal voting-rights laws—for that “one person, one vote” principle to hold water—they must be off the mark by no more than one or two people. The number I was aiming for: 846,791, equal to the state’s population (in 2000) divided among 40 state Senate districts.

And here’s where I ran into trouble. In trying to balance my district and reach that number, I lost sight of “communities of interest” and geographic boundaries. I simply needed to find the right-sized chunks of people. So, I began picking up census blocks—non-uniform chunks of territory that roughly equal city blocks in urban areas but sometimes can contain just two or three people in rural areas—and dropping others, trading them out like puzzle pieces, none of which fit properly. I tried to find the best-fit pieces that I could shove together and still come out with some sort of picture.

What I ended up with was a compact chunk of the Central Valley, beginning a bit south of Elk Grove, adhering largely to the San Joaquin County lines, and ending just south of Modesto. And I had only one too many people: 846,792.

Only then did I tally voter-registration numbers. Turns out my version of the 5th is extremely competitive: 45 percent of its voters were registered Democrats, and 42 percent were Republicans.

Representative Dan Lungren’s 3rd Congressional District curls around downtown Sacramento, creating a safe Republican seat.

Courtesy Of California State Senate

I also tallied Hispanic and non-Hispanic populations and found that my district almost perfectly mirrored the state.

True, I did not draw districts for the entire state, so I neglected to consider what havoc these lines would have caused to other districts. Still, the exercise helps illustrate what Costa and others in favor of redistricting have said: that the guidelines are what matter, not who puts them to use.

Judges, average citizens and even legislators could draw fair lines if they adhered to the general “good government” ideals.

Advocates for independent voters, such as Mangia, say that who decides is the most important part of the process. Legislators in the current two-party system will preserve their own jobs, and also the two-party system, if they are left in charge, said Mangia, who worked with the Reform Party during Ross Perot’s presidential bid and once ran for California’s lieutenant governor on that party’s ticket.

“This is the one thing Democrats and Republicans always agree on: how to keep third-party independents out of the process,” Mangia said.

He supports redistricting reform but stresses that the process must be made fair for the state’s 3 million independent voters. Any self-governing commission given the job should include an independent voter as a member, Mangia said.

Now, critics of a mid-decade redistricting say that what I did with the 5th District—and what Schwarzenegger and others propose to do as soon as possible for the entire state—violates voters’ rights. They say it is impossible and unfair to draw lines for a state whose population has increased by some 2 million or 3 million people since the last official tally.

“In my neighborhood in Oakland, there’s a new development up the street, and we’re going to have 3,500 people moving in,” Karin MacDonald, of Berkeley’s Statewide Database, told Assembly members during an informational hearing last month. “That’s not reflected in any data.”

Of course, California’s population will continue to change. And because of population shifts, the national census is inaccurate as soon as it is published. But federal law dictates that redistricting is fair as long as it is performed as soon as possible following the census. The older the data, the more unfair the lines will be.

Costa spokesman Robert Molnar counters that urgency is needed to break up the 2001 gerrymander. “This is righting a wrong,” he said.

Late last month, Schwarzenegger backed away from pushing for redistricting in time for 2006 elections—but only because the logistics make it near impossible.

If a special election is not called this year, Costa will place his initiative on the June 2006 primary ballot, he has said. The wording of his initiative requires the new redistricting mechanism to be put into play immediately, which would mean new lines in time for 2008 races.

In the end, redistricting cannot be a perfect machine. There are simply too many Californians to account for and too many variables—there always will be subjective wiggle room, whether on the map on the computer screen or in the process of choosing who draws the lines.

“Redistricting is never going to be fair for everybody,” MacDonald said. “The question is whether it is fair for as many people as possible.”

And to make voting work for the bulk of us, we need more than a new way to draw political lines. Even a fair and nonpartisan redistricting mechanism will not alone save the state from its democracy woes.

“This is but one of a whole host of reforms we need to undertake in this country,” Mangia said, mentioning open primaries among other ways to include independent voters and force legislators to be more responsive.

Otherwise, too many voters and would-be voters will continue to feel disenfranchised from the political process and view it as an exercise with no point—a cat’s game.