FiveThirtyEight

In America, critics say, voters don’t pick their politicians: Politicians pick their voters. It’s a cynical way of describing the American process of drawing political boundaries. In most states, politicians carve up districts and can sort voters in ways that benefit themselves electorally. As awareness about gerrymandering has grown, reformers have increasingly called for that power to be turned over to independent commissions.

In 2008 and 2010, California did just that. Voters passed a series of ballot initiatives that set up an independent citizen commission. As former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told FiveThirtyEight, “What we did in California, what we were obsessed about, was to get (redistricting) completely away from the politicians. Take that power away from them and give it back to the people.”

But politicians and political parties have a lot at stake in the redistricting process, and they were not about to relinquish control without putting up a fight — particularly the Democratic lawmakers who held a majority in the state. After losing the battle over whether to set up a commission in the first place, they set out to influence the commission’s work. Did they succeed?

This is the fifth installment of FiveThirtyEight’s podcast series “The Gerrymandering Project,” in which we travel around the country to explore the effects of gerrymandering and what reformers are doing to change the redistricting process. In this episode, we look at California’s attempt to ditch partisan politics.

Prior to the creation of California’s commision, lawmakers enacted maps that ensured their likely re-election, Republican and Democrat alike. The new law explicitly barred the commission from drawing lines that would benefit any party or politician, and it instead instructed commissioners to keep existing communities and geographic areas whole. The commissioners traveled the state and heard testimony from Californians about which communities they wanted to be included in their congressional districts.

Academic research shows that in 2011, the commission did a better job of keeping communities in single districts than the previous “incumbent protection plan” had. The diversity of the districts declined, meaning that within districts people were more likely to share similarities on things like race, age, income and education.

But the commission’s success in banning politicians from the process is still up for debate. During the map-drawing, politicians and interest groups hired political consultants to organize testimony to the commission. In one example, incumbent Democratic Congressman Jerry McNerney hired a consultant to create a publicity strategy and draw up proposed maps that would create a district in which he could win. It was up to the commissioners to discern which testimony was in line with their mandate of not favoring politicians or parties and which violated their mandate.

California’s experience with redistricting in 2011 is about the tension between trying to rid the redistricting process of politicians and their attempts to find a way back in. To hear the story, click on the play button above or subscribe to The Gerrymandering Project podcast feed. And while you wait for the next episode, be sure to join our Gerrymandering Project Facebook group. It’s a place to share your experiences with and opinions about gerrymandering. We’ll be having conversations there every week.