California and the Limits of Independent Redistricting Commissions with Winner-Take-All

by Devin McCarthy, Rob Richie // Published February 15, 2013

Three months after the 2012 election, independent redistricting continues to gain attention as a panacea for American congressional elections. Making the case from the quantitative flank is Sam Wang, professor of neuroscience at Princeton and founder of the Princeton Election Consortium, whose February 2 op-ed in the New York Times purported to show that the partisan bias in the U.S. House of Representatives could be corrected nearly entirely by implanting independent redistricting nationwide in the form that it is currently used in states like California. Wang later expressed his admiration for the California commission model by tweeting, in response to a National Journal article on the defeat of Congressman Howard Berman, "What independent redistricting looks like: races blown wide open, incumbents ousted."


As FairVote has long argued, independent redistricting is a necessary reform, and we support it wholeheartedly. But proponents are simply wrong to suggest it would be sufficient if left to operate within winner-take-all elections. A perfect illustration of this point is the effect of the independent redistricting commission in California. Election results clearly show that  "wide open" races and "ousted incumbents" were not the norm in California in 2012 - and are likely to become even more scarce in the state's future elections.

FairVote co-founder Steven Hill has already written an excellent Sacramento Bee op-ed enumerating the limitations of the combination of independent redistricting and the state's Top Two primary system. Hill found that independent redistricting did not create significantly more competitive races, and the average margin of victory for incumbents was "no different than it has been for the past ten years."

In future congressional elections in California, competition is likely to further decrease and incumbents will settle comfortably into their mostly one-sided districts. The Berman/Sherman race that Wang referred to was an aberration - that is, two long-serving incumbents facing off after being drawn into the same district - and one that is hardly unique to states with redistricting commissions. In elections in single-member districts that don't take place after redistricting, incumbent/incumbent elections will not exist. If Berman/Sherman is "what independent redistricting looks like," it will be 10 years before we see it have an impact again.

But more broadly, California's plan shows just how limited an effect commissions will have when left to work only within winner-take-all elections. Looking to FairVote's partisanship index (our well-tested method of grouping congressional districts into categories of likely competitiveness based on the relative shares of the presidential candidates in districts compared to candidates' national percentages), most California districts remain fundamentally lopsided and only four out of 53 have a partisan balance suggesting a real chance of regular competitiveness.

First, 42 of California's 53 districts are locked down for one party. On one side of the partisan scale, Republicans represent 10 districts with a partisanship of more than 55% Republican, including nine greater than 57.7%. Democrats are highly unlikely to win any of these districts, with none of their candidates in those districts winning even 43% of the vote in 2012.

On the other side of the scale, Democrats represent all 25 districts with a partisanship of at least 61% Democratic - districts in which the "closest" a Republican came to winning was a 28 percentage point defeat. Democrats also represent the seven remaining districts that are at least 56.9% Democratic, with all Republican candidates losing by at least ten percentages points in 2012 in those districts. That's 32 very safely Democratic districts.

Let's turn to the eleven remaining districts that have more of a chance to be competitive.

  • Two Republicans represent districts with a partisanship that is at least 52.8% Republican - that is, more competitive, but still tough terrain for Democrats given today's partisan voting patterns. Democrats lost by more than nine percentage points in both districts and, nationally, Democrats in 2012 won only three new seats in districts that were at least 52.8% Republican.
  • There are five districts with a partisanship that is between 53.2% and 56.8% Democratic. Republicans currently hold two of those districts, although both will certainly be top Democratic targets in 2014 and highly vulnerable. One was the anomalous CA-31, where Gary Miller won election because several Democratic candidates split the vote in the June primary and only two Republicans advanced to the general election due to the problematic "Top Two" system.
  • That leaves us with just four districts with a partisanship of 47.2% to 53.2% -- the real "competitive zone." Democrats today hold three of these seats and Republicans hold one. If more than two party changes occur in California congressional districts this decade, it's highly likely the shifts come from these four seats. If the current incumbents are strong candidates who can develop a substantial incumbency advantage in their districts, however, there may be no additional seat changes aside from the Democratic targets mentioned above.

In short, most of California is locked into one-party representation and most races will settle into perpetual landslides for the rest of the decade. Furthermore, the current plan has under-represented Republicans and, as usual, shut out independents. Mitt Romney and Elizabeth Emken, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 2012, both won 38% of California's statewide vote, but Republicans won only 28% of California's House seats. One independent congressional candidate, Bill Bloomfield, came surprisingly close to winning, but it is very unlikely that any independents will win in the next decade.

Independent redistricting did some things right, and for that it deserves praise: a few more districts were competitive, the district lines were slightly more compact, incumbents were less favored, and racial minorities did earn chances to elect some preferred candidates, even if most racial minority voters were left in white-majority districts that elected white candidates. But it's illusory to suggest that California's model will create many competitive districts or provide any guarantee of a fair balance of partisan representation.

For electoral reform that actually accomplishes the goals of fair representation and competitive races for all voters, fair voting forms of proportional representation are the answer - using "super districts" that indeed should be drawn by an independent redistricting commission. We hope that Sam Wang and the many pundits that seem to agree with him take a closer look at the nature of the problem and the full array of reform solutions available to policymakers.