Thursday, February 17, 2011




The Census is over, its findings known and California has a brand-new redistricting commission made up of citizens who have never before been public figures.

The big remaining question: Will all this lead to lots of new faces in both Sacramento and in California’s delegation to Congress?

The best guess here is probably not.

From the start, the idea of taking the once-a-decade chore of drawing new legislative and congressional districts was embraced by Republicans who wanted fewer Democrats in office and by reformers who wanted to see more competitive districts than this state has had in many years.

It’s a rare election where even one Congressional seat changes parties; just as unusual to see a switch in the state Senate or Assembly. Out of 173 total seats available, perhaps two or three might change party in any election cycle, a rate of about 1 percent or 2 percent.

But there’s a surprising likelihood about the new districting reality: It might not change this situation very much. In fact, it stands a chance of placing even more Democrats in office than we see now, when the party dominates both Legislative houses and the congressional delegation.

Here’s why: The Citizens Redistricting Commission is charged with making new districts conform as nearly as possible to city limits, county lines and logical geographic divisions like rivers and the crests of ridges and mountain ranges. At the same time, federal law demands the districts be drawn so all ethnic groups have a decent chance at representation.

There can be no clumping of all Latinos in one large county into just one district, for instance. Nor can there be splintering of any ethnic group to make sure it has no chance of getting representation or influence. The latter two requirements stem from a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Many of the old districts were plainly gerrymandered, a term derived from the 19th Century Massachusetts politician Eldridge Gerry, who wanted to keep Whigs in office in the early 1800s. To this purpose, he drew one district in the shape of a salamander, complete with long, thin tail. Combine Gerry’s name with the shape he used and you get a gerrymander. California has seen lots of those, especially in its most populous areas.

The purpose of California’s most recent gerrymandering was to make sure Republicans and Democrats stayed represented at about the same levels they were in 2000. Republicans agreed not to fight a Democrat-drawn plan so long as all their incumbents were safe in the new districts.

It's worked just that way for the last 10 years, as there was very little change in the proportions of the Legislature or the congressional delegation controlled by either big party.

In that arrangement, most Democrats won by very large margins and most Republicans did, too. Districts with races decided by fewer than 10 percent of the vote were rare. For there is no federal law against drawing lines around a few city blocks known to contain many Republicans to make sure they’re all within one district.

Add to all this the simple fact of a large Democratic voter registration advantage, amounting to about 2 million during last November’s election.

But the 2000 agreement is dead. Membership on the new commission is made up equally of Democrats, Republicans and folks not in either party -- plainly out of proportion to the actual voting preferences of Californians, with Republicans and independents over-represented. But for sure, there will be no attempt made to dump Democrats or Republicans into different districts just to create safe seats for either party.

Instead, the lines will supposedly be drawn without regard to any of that. Enter two other factors: Persons with similar ethnic, economic and educational backgrounds tend to cluster together. So there will still be mostly-Latino districts and mostly-black districts and mostly-Anglo ones.

But the fact there are 2 million more Democrats than Republicans now becomes a factor. If lines are drawn without regard to party, chances are in most districts there will have to be more Democrats than Republicans.

Which means there may be closer races in future elections, but Democrats will have the best shot at winning the bulk of them by sheer dint of their numerical preponderance.

All of which means the usually inept California Republican Party may have shot itself in the foot again by not thinking through the ultimate consequence of their knee-jerk backing of the new redistricting commission. We’ll know much more about all this come early November, 2012.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit