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Political Analysis: Assembling California’s New Redistricting Committee


Redistricting is not a word that makes many hearts beat faster. But a new voter-approved Citizens Redistricting Committee could potentially make profound changes in California politics.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Most of us are familiar with the fact that a census will be conducted next year. The results of that count will determine how many state and national legislative districts California has. What many of us may not remember is that after the census count, California now has a new way of drawing state legislative districts. Last year, voters approved the establishment of a Citizens' Redistricting Commission. And while all of this may sound like the kind of a story only a policy wonk could love, the new process could produce big changes in California politics. Joining me now to discuss the new redistricing policy is KPBS political correspondent, Gloria Penner. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): I thought you were going to introduce me as KPBS political wonk, Gloria Penner.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I wouldn’t do that.

PENNER: Okay. Well, you know, Maureen, the best way to think about this is to go back 10 years to 2000 where a plan was drawn up by the legislators to last for 10 years. And the deal was this, the Democrats, because they were in the majority then as they are now, agreed to maintain the current balance of state and federal representatives in exchange for the GOP’s promise not to challenge the plan in court or at the ballot box. And the irony is that the long term results were more partisanship and more gridlock on the many issues confronting the lawmakers. It was barely bipartisan. Get the numbers, of the 173 politicians we elected by district that we sent to Washington and Sacramento, just three elected representatives came from so-called competitive districts. The rest were districts where the winner of the general election was known the day after the primary.

CAVANAUGH: So historically, though, Gloria, this is how it’s been done in California. The legislature – the Assembly itself basically draws up the legislative districts for California.

PENNER: Not entirely because in 1990 the California Supreme Court appointed a special master to draw the district lines after the politicians couldn’t come to an agreement. So here are how the numbers changed. In 2000, there were two competitive seats in the Assembly. In 1990, when it was drawn up by this grand master, there were five competitive seats.


PENNER: I’m sorry, in the Assembly there were eight. There were – there was only one competitive seat in the state Senate in 2000.


PENNER: And there were five in the Senate in 1990. And then there were no competitive seats in the House in 2000, and there were five in 1990.

CAVANAUGH: So it does make a difference how these districts are drawn up.

PENNER: It makes a big difference and that’s because moderates are likely to come from areas of the state where there are a mix of liberals and conservatives living in the same locale. And, not surprisingly, that’s the exception, not the rule. For example, the orphaned voters are Republicans from San Francisco or Democrats from Orange…


CAVANAUGH: …right.

PENNER: They have nobody to represent their interests in Sacramento or Washington. And redistricting has always been a process by which legislators choose their voters before the voters choose them.

CAVANAUGH: Very well put. Now, Prop 11 last year, approved by voters, it changes the way that we draw up state legislative districts. What does it propose? What does it create?

PENNER: Well, instead of the lawmakers, the legislators drawing up those districts. They’re going to be drawn up by a 14-member commission and it is a long, drawn out process to select these 14 people. Government auditors – it’s interesting. Government auditors will select 60 registered voters from an applicant pool and you can start applying on December 15th, that’s next week. Go online, go to California Redistricting, and there are the applications. And then legislative leaders can reduce the pool and then the auditors will pick 8 commission members by lottery, and then those commissioners pick six additional members, so you end up with 14, five Republicans, five Democrats, and four nonpartisans.

CAVANAUGH: Well, how does this new law make sure that districts will actually be more representative of the people?

PENNER: Well, I decided to go to somebody who’s really been working on this for a while. Her name is Jean Brown, and she is the San Diego organizer for Common Cause. And I asked her that question and this is what she said.

JEAN BROWN (Organizer, San Diego Common Cause): When they draw the lines, they are not going to be looking at the percentage of Republicans or Democrats in a group or others, the – you know, all the other political parties. They’re going to be looking at the communities of interest, geographic boundaries and that sort of thing. And part of the reason we feel that they will be more likely to do that is because this commission has – will be chosen from people who have no vested interest, no lobbyists, no staff of lobbyists, no chairs of political parties. None of those people will be allowed to be on the, or even apply on the – to the commission. And so these will be people, we hope, they will be people, regular citizens as you and I are, that are concerned about our communities and yet we don’t have a vested interest to make sure that one party, one group of people dominate the other.

CAVANAUGH: Who can be on this commission then?

PENNER: Well, actually what you’d want to look at are people who have strong analytical and fact-gathering skills, an ability to read and understand technical information such as statistics and maps, because you’re going to be drawing a lot of maps, familiarity with computers and software programs because they actually will be doing the drawing. They should have pretty strong communication skills, an ability to work well in groups because they’re going to be working with, you know, the 13 other members, and an ability to understand legal standards. It’s not that you have to be an attorney but at least you should understand that. And perhaps most importantly, an understanding of California’s diverse demographics and geography, and an ability to be impartial. Wow.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. And as Jean Brown points out, you’re – the people who are not allowed on this commission are people who have been very tied into politics, who’ve worked for political parties.

PENNER: Yes, especially those, for example, who have run for, or been elected to, federal or state office or been appointed to a board or a commission by the governor or by a legislator or a member of congress or served as a registered lobbyist, for example, or served as a consultant to a political party. But, you know, if you worked in local politics, local, nonpartisan politics, this actually would be a pretty good background for somebody who wants to look at redistricting.

CAVANAUGH: Now before we even assemble the first Citizens’ Redistricting Committee, there’s a move underway to expand their directive. There’s now a move to also have congressional districts be drawn this way. Tell us about that.

PENNER: Well, it’s been put on the ballot and actually it’s not on the ballot yet but it’s being prepared for the November 2nd, 2010 ballot. And this is called the California Congressional Redistricting Initiative because the redistricting commission is only going to be responsible for the state redistricting for the Board of Equalization for State Senate, for State Assembly. But Congress, and remember Congress has no term limits, so you get into Congress and you can really stay there forever. Congress has redistricting by the state legislators and now what this initiative will do, will basically redraw, allow a commission to redraw the congressional district boundaries. And so that is going to be on the ballot if it qualifies, and it will be a new way for political districts to be drawn for California’s congressional districts. And the name of the man who put it on the ballot language will be filed by somebody called Charles Munger, and he was also responsible, in part, for Proposition 11.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Common Cause, as you referred to, you spoke with Jean Brown from the local Common Cause, they supported the Prop 11 when it was about the state legislative districts. What about expanding it? What do they think about that?

PENNER: Well, why don’t we turn to Jean Brown and find out what she thinks about it.

BROWN: That is the ultimate. That’s what we – Most of us that wanted this want it also – would have liked to have the congressional included. Unfortunately, there are – there were things done in Texas with their redistricting that smelled quite a bit and people were very afraid to do this. I think to get the congressional redistricting done, it has to be done simultaneously throughout the country because when one – If one state cleans up their act, they will be – they could be punished because of another state having dirty politics.

PENNER: Well, that’s quite a task, to get the whole country to redistrict or set up a redistricting commission for members of Congress at the same time. I don’t know whether that will happen. But, meanwhile, California, as always, is going to test the waters and see happens there.

CAVANAUGH: Who does not like this idea and why don’t they like it?

PENNER: Well, first it’s expected that the idea of congressional redistricting is not going to please Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She’s very unlikely to want to throw California’s congressional seats up for grabs. And Republicans aren’t likely to be too happy about it either. In fact, Proposition 11 opponents deliberately excluded Congress last time because they were afraid that Pelosi would step in to help kill it and the Republicans wouldn’t be too happy about it and, of course, their strategy did pay off because Proposition 11 passed, but narrowly. But the camel’s nose is now under the tent.

CAVANAUGH: As they say.

PENNER: As they say.

CAVANAUGH: Now there – Do they expect, though, a legal challenge to the new commission?

PENNER: Well, according to the California Chronicle, while litigation to block implementation is anticipated, experts from both parties think it likely there will be at least one election cycle in the districts drawn by the commission created by Prop 11. Now when we talk about one election cycle, the way I figure it, reading over all the material, is that the applications will be received between this December, 2009, and February 2010, and the commissioners will be selected next year and they will go to work in early 2011, be finished by September 2011. So I suspect we’re going to see that the new redistricting rules will kick in for 2012 which, interestingly, is a presidential election year so it’ll draw out a lot of people. And so those people who say, yeah, there’s probably going to be litigation, they think that at least 2012 we will see the new redistricting laws come in before any litigation takes place.

CAVANAUGH: And finally, Gloria, what are the expectations about California’s legislative clout after the 2010 census. I have heard some speculate that California may actually lose one or two congressional seats because our population count may be down.

PENNER: Well, this is true. From 2000 to 2010, the population in California underwent a major shift eastward, people moving to California’s inland areas from its coastal enclaves, and that means that California’s congressional district boundaries will certainly undergo major upheaval after the 2010 census. As one example, the San Francisco Bay area grew less than 1% since the last redistricting. The Central Valley area has grown by 21%. Los Angeles County has grown 5%. San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial counties have grown by 17%. So although California’s population hasn’t grown, it really hasn’t grown relative to the population of the rest of the United States and so may have possibly proportionately shrank…


PENNER: …which means that we could lose one or two seats.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Well, thank you so much for taking us through. Not as wonky as all that.

PENNER: Well, I don’t think so.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. I’ve been speaking with Gloria Penner, KPBS political correspondent. She is host of KPBS radio’s Editors Roundtable, and San Diego Week on KPBS TV. You can check out her blog, Political Fix, at And by the way, if you’d like to comment about anything you hear on These Days, go to and post your comment. Coming up, do boys and girls really think differently? Stay with us as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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