In part of an editorial calling for the US Supreme Court to strike down North Carolina’s Congressional Districts in the Rucho v. Common Cause, the editorial board of the Fayetteville Observer offered praise for California’s redistricting commission:
The voter-applied remedies to hyper-political redistricting are available in some referendum-friendly states like California, which has already taken the job away from the state’s politicians and installed a citizen redistricting commission. From what we’ve seen and heard, the commission is doing a great job.
The reality is that California’s redistricting commission did not make the state’s congressional districts more competitive and the idea that the commission would make redistricting nonpartisan turned out to be a myth.
When redistricting in California was conducted by the state legislature, Democrats so thoroughly gerrymandered the congressional districts that 32 of the state’s 53 districts were rated as safe (meaning that the majority party in that district was likely to get over 60% of the vote in a typical election). After the redistricting commission produced a set of “fair maps,” the number of safe sets plunged to …. 32 out of 53.
Source of chart: FairVote
To cut the commission some slack, the folks at FairVote who did the analysis declared that the commissioners had intended to massively increase the number of competitive swing seats by three from five to eight out of 53, but that their earnest efforts were thwarted by shifting voter sentiment and the reality of the state’s political geography. So, it was the will of voters that prevented those drawing district maps from achieving even that modest goal.
Part of the reason that the California commission failed is that it became, unwittingly or not, a tool for the Democratic Party when activists for the later infiltrated the process. I do not blame California Democrats for working the system to their advantage, that is what parties do. The real problem is that the fig leaf of independence and nonpartisanship left the commission vulnerable to that infiltration.
Before the California commission ever drew a map, however, Republicans were already accusing the body of being co-opted by Democrats, based on its selection of consultants. Those accusations gained some weight when a ProPublica investigation pointed to places where the commission had adopted district lines promoted by supposed “good government” groups that actually were run by Democratic operatives. Democrats are expected to gain seats under California’s new maps. “It wasn’t so much that the Democrats tried,” says Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government and one of the consultants the commission passed over. “Of course they tried. The surprise is that it worked.”
(Here is a link to the ProPublica article referenced in the quote above.)
There are currently two proposals for redistricting commissions in the General Assembly. Neither of them of them are based on the false premise that you can somehow take politics out of redistricting. Of those two, the proposal in H69 does a better job of accounting for partisanship (rather than pretending that its doesn’t exist) by requiring that any plan must be approved by partisans of both major parties before it is submitted to the General Assembly.
If North Carolina is going to do redistricting by commission, let’s at least not pretend that California’s failed model is something to emulate.