Redistricting: Did the Earth Move for You?

As we point out in California Crackup and as political scientist Jennifer A. Steen lucidly explains at Zócalo Public Square, redistricting reform had the heartbreak built in. Given how Californians have sorted themselves into communities of the like-minded and given the requirements of law, the best we can hope is that the Citizens Redistricting Commission created in 2008 by Prop 11 will produce a handful of competitive legislative districts.

And that is just what it has delivered in its draft maps. The open question is: How big is a handful?

Phillip Reese of the Sacramento Bee projects the new maps would increase the number of legislative swing districts from 3 to 7 (out of 120). Political scientist Vladimir Kogan estimates the maps will increase the number of “competitive” seats from 9 to 20. Democrat activist and writer David Dayen scorches PPIC political scientist Eric McGee for counting as competitive any district where Democrats’ voter registration advantage over Republicans is less than 10 percentage points but greater than -5 points. Using that standard, McGee projects the number of competitive legislative seats as growing from 12 to 25.

The problem here is that the word “competitive” means different things to different people.

To political scientists, a “competitive” district is one that has attributes like those of districts that have been observed in the past to swing from one party to another. The attribute Kogan uses—”a 0% to 3% Republican advantage in voter registration or a 0% to 10% Democratic advantage”—is one created at UC Berkeley because it was the range in which districts were most likely in the 1990s to swing from one party to the other.

And if you look at elections conducted over the last decade under the 2001 redistricting, what was true in 1990s was still true: every election that resulted in a party turnover fell into that range of voter registration. All seven of them.

To normal people who don’t talk PolySci, “competitive” means something more.

Here again, a look at the Assembly elections of the last decade (Senate and House elections had so little competition they aren’t worth remembering) is useful. After the 2001 redistricting, there were six Assembly seats meeting the test of competitiveness that Kogan uses. Of the 30 subsequent general elections held in those districts, only 11 were “competitive” in the sense that both major parties offered credible candidates backed with enough money to reach voters. Only two of those elections resulted in swings from one party to the other.

In other words, to be “competitive” in the normal-people sense of the word, a district needs not just to be the kind of place where real elections have sometimes been observed to break out. It needs to be a place where strong candidates are ready to jump in and big-money donors and groups are ready to invest scarce dollars. And to be a swing district, it’s almost always necessary that there not be an incumbent. Of the 400 Assembly general elections conducted under the 2001 districts, only six resulted in a party turnover and none of those unseated an incumbent.

So how big is a handful? Big enough that we will see additional “competitive” elections in the coming decade, in both the PolySci and normal senses of the word. But only because there couldn’t be fewer. And so small a handful that Californians will feel no happier with their legislature or their ability to influence California’s future.