When Orange County voters cast ballots in the November 2022 election, there was a major force that transformed how local communities will be represented in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
A citizens redistricting panel.
More than a decade ago, California voters yanked redistricting of Congressional and state legislative lines out of politicians’ hands and put it under the control of a citizens’ commission.
The panel – comprised evenly of Democrats and Republicans – redrew the lines in 2021 after dozens of virtual and in-person public input meetings up and down the state.
When redrawing districts, it’s required to prioritize keeping similar communities together.
And partisan considerations are banned in redistricting.
Benefits for Both Political Parties
The final lines ended up creating advantages for Republicans and Democrats alike, depending on the area.
In some of the most competitive parts of Orange County, redistricting gave Republicans more of an advantage in voter registration.
After redistricting, Rep. Young Kim went from running in a district that had a 5-point Democrat advantage to one with a 4-point Republican advantage.
And the commission drew two Democrat incumbents into a single state Senate seat – forcing Josh Newman and Dave Min to run against each other for re-election in 2024.
Elsewhere, Democrats ended up with more of an advantage in voter registration, including a slightly bigger edge for Rep. Katie Porter – who went from a district with a 1.3-point Democrat advantage to 1.7 points.
It’s all the more impactful in a county as purple as OC, where many seats are very much in play between both major parties.
“Orange County’s a good example of districting that was done kind of on a rational, nonpolitical basis that ended up creating competitive districts” for state and Congressional seats, said Paul Mitchell, a leading statewide expert on redistricting who runs Political Data, Inc. and Redistricting Partners.
While some other states require commissions to focus on competitiveness, California’s voter-approved law does not. Instead, commissioners are required to prioritize keeping communities together and not splitting cities up.
“California kind of backs into competitive elections by following all the rules and not looking at partisanship,” Mitchell said.
“And I think it does a better job of that than some other states that have competitiveness built into the laws.”
The statewide commission was chaired by an Orange County native: Linda Akutagawa of Huntington Beach.
Some of the key public feedback in OC was from Vietnamese-American residents wanting to keep Little Saigon together, and various views on whether Yorba Linda and Placentia should be grouped with nearby cities in the Inland Empire and LA County, or not.
“We heard a lot of people calling in to advocate for the coast itself, that the coastline of Orange County is itself a community of interest” that should be kept intact and not split between districts, Akutagawa said in an interview during the redistricting process.
The final maps largely kept coastal communities together.
Voters Take Away Legislators’ Redistricting Power
The current redistricting process traces back to 2008 and 2010, when statewide voters shifted the map-drawing power from politicians to the citizens’ panel.
The California Citizens Redistricting Commission is required to have five Republicans, five Democrats and four members who aren’t affiliated with either of the two major parties.
Many of the commission’s members are chosen through a random drawing of names among applicants who are deemed qualified by state auditors.
Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma said the citizens’ commission “had a spectacular knowledge” about North Orange County communities during the Zoom meeting she observed in the latest round of redistricting.
The commissioners knew that Fullerton’s Commonwealth Ave. “was a really good divider” between districts, said Balma, a longtime resident.
“I was like ‘Wow.’ It took me 10 years to know that,” she added.
If politicians were drawing the lines, political considerations would be front and center, Balma said.
“With a Legislature drawing those districts, no one would want to piss off their colleagues or make it more difficult for their party to win,” she said.
“An independent redistricting commission is what’s best for [voters], but not necessarily best for the political parties. And not certainly what’s best for the candidates,” said Balma, pointing to Min and Newman being pitted against each other in the next election.
California’s citizens’ redistricting system also has been widely cited as a key factor in Republicans recently winning a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives on a narrow 4-member margin.
“The redistricting of California is why the Republicans control the House. Because if we still had the old system, [Democrat state legislators] would have gerrymandered the hell out of those districts,” Mitchell said.
But the commission’s days could be numbered when it comes to handling Congressional redistricting.
In a closely-watched case called Moore v. Harper, the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether to agree with North Carolina Republican legislators who say Congressional redistricting can only be done by state legislators.
It would take away the power of state courts or citizen commissions to draw the lines.
The decision is expected by June.