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Lines in the Land
Redistricting can mean Political Life or Death

TIM HODSON, director 
of the Center for California Studies at Sac StateThe state’s power crunch may have been the talk of the town, but what quietly energized the political powers in Sacramento this year was legislative redistricting. The decennial process—or “decennial debacle” as California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk once called it—follows each new census. Every 10 years, based on population changes, the Legislature and governor draw new boundaries for state legislative and congressional seats.

Sounds simple, but in reality redistricting can mean political life or death for elected officials, says Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Sac State and one of the state’s top experts on redistricting. Hodson has regularly provided quick lessons on the topic to political reporters from across the state.

Political insiders are so focused on redistricting, Hodson says, because it can determine who gets elected and who doesn’t.

Those writing the plans can use the opportunity to “gerrymander” districts—draw political boundaries with less than the public good in mind. They might, for instance, group most of an area’s Republicans into just one district or change a representative’s district so it no longer includes her home. Districts have also been gerrymandered to make it less likely an ethnic minority candidate will get elected.

Because district lines have a big impact on who gets elected, Hodson says, redistricting can dramatically affect public policy for the decade that follows.

It also can get intensely personal. Redistricting has caused scorched earth battles between political parties and irreconcilable anger between individual combatants. The topic was hotly debated at the 1879 constitutional convention, and in the 1920s, redistricting took six years to resolve. In the 1970s there were 12 plans, two vetoes by the governor and seven lawsuits. The 1981 redistricting, Hodson says, was so intense that the resulting partisan anger continues today.

Californians generally remain blissfully ignorant of a process that determines so much of the state’s future.

At most, they’ll read a bit about the political fights. They’ll see some editorials bemoaning suspected gerrymandering. And they’ll hear from “good government” groups and politicians proposing such things as taking redistricting away from the Legislature (giving it to the courts or a commission) or imposing strict conditions on how districts may be drawn (following city boundaries, for instance).

Not surprisingly, popular opinion generally regards redistricting as nothing but a political power play.

But the fact is, Hodson says, redistricting plans face being overturned by courts if they don’t follow a myriad of state and federal rules, and case law. Districts must have the same populations, respect community and geographic boundaries, consider “communities of interest” and much more. That alone shows how misleading the clichés of conventional wisdom can be, Hodson says.

“Despite the general perception, redistricting is not politics at its purest, unrestrained by rules and good public policy,” Hodson says. “There are some political shenanigans, certainly, and that isn’t unique to California. But that also isn’t the universal rule.”

This from a man who was battle-hardened as a staffer in the state’s 1981 redistricting and as the top State Senate consultant for the 1991 redistricting. In 1981 he was witness to Congressmember Phil Burton successfully drawing new congressional districts and having them approved by a Legislature that hadn’t seen the maps or even read the legal descriptions of the new boundaries.

Hodson has seen strange districts from all over the country, many reflecting “shenanigans.”

But many districts, even the odd-looking ones, he says, result from all the rules surrounding redistricting. Cities often have strange boundaries, and trying to keep that community boundary within one legislative district leads to similarly strange districts. Often there aren’t enough people in one area to make up a district, so another area will have to be joined with it.

Everyone, it seems, has a different idea of what is most important when a district is drawn, and they show up in various reform proposals. Hodson says most miss the mark.

“At the heart of many reforms is the futile hope that you can take the politics out of politics,” Hodson says. “Many of these proposals say that a group of people chosen to represent us cannot be trusted with redistricting. What I say is that if we can’t trust the Legislature on redistricting, why should we trust it with the state budget or any other issue?”

Hodson has his own ideas about how to improve what he calls a “traditionally private, exclusive process.”

He thinks there should be a required number of public hearings throughout the state and a public, accessible redistricting database, and that final maps should be publicly available at least two days before a final floor vote. Hodson notes that this year the Assembly and Senate did hold public hearings and the database was available through UC Berkeley.

Of course, Hodson says, politicians will still maneuver for political advantage, whether the advantage goes to a particular politician, a party, a region or a cause.

Hodson says he worked hard, both under Democratic and Republican leaders, to achieve a responsible and responsive Senate redistricting plan in 1991. He recalls proudly the more than 20 public hearings he organized, the publication of maps well before the vote, the unprecedented unanimous vote in the Senate and, most of all, praise from various voting rights groups for the Senate plan.

Even so, redistricting ended up in the courts that year.

The compromise State Senate and Assembly plan, generally seen as favoring Democrats, was vetoed by then Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican. A group of “special masters” eventually settled the matter.

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