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Editorial Note: This blog post was written with the assistance of Chris Carson, Redistricting Program Director, the League of Women Voters of California
A new report released today, “When the People Draw the Lines,” commissioned by the League of Women Voters of California in partnership with The James Irvine Foundation, finds that the first California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC) was very successful in making the line-drawing process more nonpartisan and democratic than in previous redistricting cycles.
The report provides an in-depth analysis of the state’s closely-watched 2011 redistricting process and shares new public opinion data about voters’ impressions of the commission. We also believe that the 2011 efforts of California’s CRC provide important lessons learned for other states exploring redistricting reform.
About the California Commission
In the past decade, California voters and voting advocates worked very hard to improve the redistricting process. In 2007 and 2008, the League of Women Voters of California joined key partners in a major statewide campaign to initially draft and then advocate passage of Proposition 11, which transferred the redistricting process from the state’s legislature to the independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. After a lengthy commissioner selection process, in 2011 the inaugural 14-member commission accomplished the difficult and complex task of redrawing 177 district maps in only eight months. The resulting maps stood up to partisan litigation and were in place for the 2012 election cycle.
From the early days of the campaign to the release of today’s report, the California League has been active at every step of the commission process. This included League attendance at dozens of commission meetings and hearings, incredible grassroots efforts to encourage full public participation and media understanding of the process, and regular advocacy to ensure the commissioners fully met their charge of drawing districts to best meet the needs of all California communities.
See below for our take on the most important findings from today’s report.
1. The process exceeded expectations.
The report finds that commissioners actively and extensively sought input from the public by developing a statewide campaign to engage citizens through public meetings, open databases, and online engagement. It also cites the incredible efforts undertaken by many organizations, including the League and its partners, to encourage public participation. According to the report, “The work of the commission generated far more public interest and input than anyone had imagined. Summaries by the commission indicated the following inventory of public comments: a total of 34 public hearings; more than 70 deliberation meetings; meetings and hearings in 32 cities and 23 counties; more than 2,700 speakers at hearings; and written submissions from more than 2,000 organizations and more than 20,000 individuals.”
In addition to facilitating a transparent and fully inclusive process, the commission completed its work on time and with majority support of all three required groups of commissioners: Democrats, Republicans, and those not aligned with either major party.
2. The resulting maps have also stood up to legal challenges.
According to the report, “The maps survived strenuous legal challenges in state and federal courts with no adverse judicial decisions. In a unanimous 7–0 decision upholding the state senate maps, the California Supreme Court noted, “Not only do the Commission-certified Senate districts appear to comply with all of the constitutionally-mandated criteria set forth in California Constitution, article XXI, the Commission-certified Senate districts also are a product of what generally appears to have been an open, transparent and nonpartisan redistricting process as called for by the current provisions of article XXI.”
3. The positive effects of the maps were felt on Election Day 2012.
The report cites a study by the Public Policy Institute of California which found that “the new districts also altered the electoral landscape, leading many incumbents to pass on reelection, forcing others to introduce themselves to unfamiliar voters, and increasing the number of competitive races overall.”
4. A surprising number of voters were aware of—and supported—the work of the Commission.
According to a 2011 Field Poll cited in the report, an estimated 1/3 of California voters were aware of the commission’s work. Of those, fully 66% of voters approved of the resulting redistricting maps. This speaks to the incredible efforts undertaken to empower voters to participate in the process, speak out for their communities, and feel ownership over their own democracy.
5. Looking to 2020: important improvements are needed
Despite the Commission’s successes, real challenges loom in future years. The report identifies many instances where the commission suffered from a lack of time and monetary and structural support; factors that will be key to determining the success of future commissions. For example:
To ensure the continued active and informed participation of citizens in California’s democracy, advocates must begin addressing obstacles that may damage the work of future citizens redistricting commissions far before the next U.S. Census process begins.
6. Advocates must protect the Commission from attack.
In addition to ensuring future commissions are fully supported and prepared to mitigate the challenges seen during this inaugural process, advocates and commission leaders must also be poised to fight back against attempted laws or ballot measures that directly seek to damage or eliminate the California Citizens Redistricting Commission and its line-drawing efforts. Similar challenges have threatened—but not halted—the difficult work of commissions in other states, as was the case in Arizona in 2011.
Read the full report here. To learn more about the League’s work to improve redistricting nationwide, download our comprehensive redistricting report, Shining a Light and read about our recent work in North Carolina.