The release of new preliminary maps from the California Citizens Redistricting Commission has caused a run on metaphors in the dwindling state media, which is desperate to crown the new system for reapportionment as a testament to bold, nonpartisan leadership – precisely the virtues and values they stand for, oddly enough. But while the new maps certainly end the practice of incumbency protection, they do not turn the state’s legislative districts into a bold new 50-50 toss-up where any party can win.
Analysts are falling all over themselves to count as many of the new districts as possible as “swing seats,” to somehow prove that the nonpartisan citizen-led process worked in its goal, or at least the goal the media placed on it. PPIC’s Eric McGhee created an absurdly broad standard for competitive districts and then found that the new maps create more of them:
McGhee defines a “competitive district” as one that falls between +5% Republican registration and +10% Democratic registration, a range designed to account for a) the greater propensity of GOPers to vote and b) the increased likelihood of D’s crossing over than R’s.
Using that measure, he concludes that the number of competitive districts, counting both house of the Legislature and Congress, increases from 16 to 34 under the draft plan; the total includes 7 additional Assembly districts (9 competitive to 16); 6 additional Senate districts (3 to 9) and 5 additional House districts (4 to 9).
First of all, even if this were true, it would total 16 out of 80 Assembly seats, 9 out of 40 Senate seats and 9 out of 53 House seats. But these numbers are ridiculous. That is cemented by the fact that the old number of competitive districts, based on the 2001-2010 maps, should have created much more turnover than what actually happened. In fact, there was virtually no legislative turnover, certainly not what would be supported by those old numbers. I’m assuming the “swing” Senate seats include seats in the Central Valley held by the likes of Republicans Jeff Denham, Abel Maldonado and Sam Blakeslee, that have done nothing but frustrate Democrats repeatedly no matter the matchup. So judging based on this 15% spread of registration is just stupid.
If you actually get serious about what is really a competirivce district, you come up with something like the Sacramento Bee’s analysis. In a story with the preposterous headline “California Legislature may see more swing districts under draft political maps,” the actual analysis shows that swing districts will increase in the State Senate, for example, from one district… to two.
Database research by Bee staff writer Phillip Reese shows that the new maps would raise the number of swing districts in the Assembly from two to five, and in the Senate from one to two.
In the Assembly, 51 seats would be considered safe or leaning for Democrats and 24 safe or leaning for Republicans, with five swing districts. In the Senate, the numbers would be 27, 11 and two, respectively.
The reason for this is simple: Californians self-segregate. Unless you re-gerrymander with absurd district lines, it’s impossible to create a critical mass of swing districts. The liberals live in one place and the conservatives live in another. That’s just the way it is.
Next, to the extent that any districts were “swing” seats before, they grew into that position over time, because of increased Hispanic populations and demographic shifts throughout the ten year period. That was true of AD-78 and AD-80 in San Diego and Riverside County, it was true of AD-5 in the Sacramento area, it was arguably true of Loretta Sanchez’ seat in Orange County. So looking at these maps and thinking the registration numbers will remain static is similarly stupid. What’s most likely to happen is that continued Hispanic growth will push those few swing seats into Democratic hands, and push any lean-Dem seats away from Republicans as well.
The truth is that the incumbency protection maps of 2001 kept Republicans in the game in a way that these maps don’t. When allowed to reflect the true nature of the state, the maps give Democrats a path to a 2/3 majority in both houses of the legislature. The Congressional maps could lead to at least 4 pickups for Democrats, if not more. This is backed up by multiple analyses. And it merely reflects the demographic changes to the state and the total abandoning by Republicans of the Hispanic community after Prop 187. Republicans can try to regroup and turn to the left but their base is unlikely to let them.
This is why I don’t understand the Latino community’s complaint with the maps. There is substantial opportunity for Latinos to gain in strength in several seats over time. Furthermore, nothing does more for that community than a marginalization of the most xenophobic elements of the GOP, which is predetermined by these maps. But Latino groups are likely to sue under the Voting Rights Act to get more representation for their communities. If successful, Latinos will be tightly packed into districts, and as a whole, they will be less represented in Congress and the legislature. It’s a self-destructive tendency.
I’m not for incumbents picking their voters, but let’s not pretend the wise and just redistricting commission created this moderate Valhalla in the Golden State. They didn’t. They created a realistic map that will give an accurate representation of Democrats in the state.
Dave Dayen is a writer, comedian and TV/film editor based in Santa Monica. This piece originally appeared on Firedoglake.