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Walters: As Independent Redistricting Shows, Changing Rules Can Change Outcomes
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By Dan Walters, CalMatters Commentary
Published 3 years ago on
June 21, 2021

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The conflict du jour in Washington these days is the sweeping Democratic bill — passed by the House but hung up in the Senate — to overhaul voting procedures.

The legislation would supersede widely varying state-level voting laws and is needed, President Joe Biden and other Democratic figures contend, to counteract voter suppression in Republican-dominated states.

Republicans counter that the Democrats are less interested in protecting voters’ rights than in changing procedures to enhance Democratic prospects in future elections.

Dan Walters

Opinion

Democrats Push for Independent Redistricting

One section of the legislation targets the redrawing of congressional seats after each census, a process that has helped Republicans increase their numbers in Congress and unless changed is likely to do so again.

In most states, legislatures decide how congressional districts are drawn to equalize their populations and a couple of decades ago, Republicans and conservative political groups began concentrating on electing state legislators with the clear aim of influencing redistricting outcomes.

Democrats were caught napping as the GOP made big state-level gains and used its advantage to increase its congressional strength after the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Republicans now control 30 of the nation’s legislatures and have total control, including governorships, in 23 states — both figures far outstripping the number of blue states such as California.

As Democrats decry Republican gerrymanders as unfair and undemocratic, the solution, they say, is requiring states to create bipartisan and independent commissions to draw districts, such as California has done.

The History of Redistricting in California

Their advocacy for independent redistricting, however, is a recent epiphany, emerging only after they had been outfoxed by Republicans, as demonstrated by the history of redistricting in California.

When they controlled the process in California, Democrats openly drew districts to their advantage, the most notorious example being a major shift of congressional seats after the 1980 census, masterminded by the late San Francisco congressman, Phil Burton.

The districts Burton drew and then-Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislators rubberstamped — one of which benefited his brother, John — were so weirdly drawn that Burton described them, wryly, as “my contribution to modern art.”

Nearly three decades later, when two ballot measures were proposed to shift California’s redistricting from the Legislature to an independent commission, Democratic leaders were bitterly opposed. The chief opponent was Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has since magically morphed into an ardent advocate of independent redistricting in her voting rights bill.

The wrangling over independent redistricting, as well as other election procedures, once again prove the adage that changing the rules of the game, whether it’s the political game or baseball, often changes outcomes.

Changing Recall Election Rules

Another example of the syndrome is playing out in California right now.

Four years ago, the Capitol’s dominant Democrats changed the rules governing recall elections with the clear aim of helping a state senator from Orange County, Josh Newman, fend off a recall.

The revised rules merged the recall election with the state’s June 2018 primary election, thereby, Democrats hoped, boosting voter turnout and thus Newman’s chances of winning. The ploy failed and Newman was recalled, although he regained his seat in 2020.

This year, Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a recall and under the rules written to help Newman, the recall election would probably be held in October or November. However, there are efforts afoot in the Capitol to stage the election a month or two earlier, perhaps in September, on the theory that Newsom would be better positioned to win then.

Newsom will probably prevail no matter when the election is held, but politicians being politicians, changing the rules of the game to gain an advantage is just business as usual, regardless of party.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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