Lines in the Land
Redistricting can mean Political Life or Death
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 processor decennial debacle as California
Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk once called itfollows 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 states 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 doesnt.
Those writing the plans can use the opportunity to gerrymander
districtsdraw political boundaries with less than the public good
in mind. They might, for instance, group most of an areas Republicans
into just one district or change a representatives 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
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 states future.
At most, theyll read a bit about the political fights. Theyll
see some editorials bemoaning suspected gerrymandering. And theyll
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 dont 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
isnt unique to California. But that also isnt the universal
This from a man who was battle-hardened as a staffer in the states
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 hadnt 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
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 arent enough people
in one area to make up a district, so another area will have to be joined
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 cant trust the Legislature
on redistricting, why should we trust it with the state budget or any
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.