How new redistricting maps could reshape California politics

California handed redistricting to a nonpartisan commission to help break the state's chronic gridlock. The new political maps, it is becoming apparent, could do more than that.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
California Citizens Redistricting Commission member Vincent Barabba (l.) watches as Secretary of State Debra Bowen certifies one of the new legislative and congressional maps in Sacramento, Calif., Aug. 15.

One month after a nonpartisan California redistricting commission finished its work, it is becoming clear that the new political maps could create significant upheaval in California politics.

This was partly why voters chose to create them through two separate ballot initiatives. Analysts have long suggested that the state’s legislative gridlock is due in large part to the partisan way districts have been drawn in the past.

But as lawmakers and political scientists more closely scrutinize the state and congressional maps, released on July 29, they see other effects, such as potentially diminished state clout on Capitol Hill and a surge of inexperienced legislators in Sacramento.

For California, it could mean increased influence for lobbyists in the Capitol and the possibility that Democrats reach the two-thirds supermajority needed to raise taxes. For the rest of America, it is a fresh lesson in how nonpartisan redistricting commissions like the one in California can reshape the political process. California is one of 12 states to use them.

The main effects of the maps will be threefold, experts say:

“A lot of politicians up here are spending the majority of their time trying to figure out what to do and how to wage their campaigns,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “If the maps hold up against legal challenge – and I think they will – we will have battles like you’ve never seen before."

"The leadership is between a rock and a hard place, trying to figure out how to pick among their favorite children,” she adds.

In Washington, where political power is often based on seniority, losing a single member of Congress can have an outsize impact. In this way, the redistricting might involve a tradeoff, says Lara Brown, a political scientist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency.”

More competitive districts tend to result in more legislative turnover, but that could work against Californians rising to the top of key congressional committees.

“Some voters want more say at the ballot box and they want their elected officials to pay attention to them, while some want their elected officials to be able to get things done in Congress," says Professor Brown. "The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but rare is legislator who is attuned to his/her district and senior enough to make his/her constituents' priorities the nation's concerns.”

In state elections, these more-competitive races, both in primaries and general elections, could help Democrats. Democrats are currently four seats away from a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature (two seats in the Assembly and two in the Senate). The threshold is important because the Legislature can raise taxes only with a two-thirds vote.

Democrats could get there, but they will have to fight hard, says Eric McGhee, a redistricting expert at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

“It’s not a slam dunk that Democrats will do this,” he says, noting some predictions that show the GOP could lose one-third of its seats in 2012 but get them back in 2014, depending on who runs.

The ferment, however, means that as many as 40 percent of state legislators could be rookies by the end of next year. That would likely diminish political competency, say observers.

“We lose a lot of expertise when people cycle through and then leave the legislature,” says Jessica Levinson, former director of political reform for the Center for Governmental Studies. Lobbyists have more opportunity to pressure novices, she adds.

“It’s an endless dinner buffet for lobbyists because the meal keeps changing,” says Ms. Levinson. “This is not because they are evil people but because their target legislators by definition have a less-entrenched perspective.”

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