New California legislative maps show actual reform is happening 

When voters were asked to create an independent redistricting commission, they were told it would end self-serving gerrymanders secretly drafted in the Capitol’s back rooms and thus make elections less predictable and more meaningful.

The 140-member commission and its consultants and attorneys are still fine-tuning draft maps of 153 congressional and legislative districts prior to Friday’s official release, but at first glance the maps appear to fulfill that promise.

Were the maps to be adopted by the commission later this summer and survive legal challenges, they would create more “swing” districts — winnable by either major party —and probably result in more Hispanic and Asian-American officeholders.

While Democrats would no doubt remain in control of both legislative houses, whether they would achieve their long-sought goal of two-thirds majorities, thereby gaining power over taxes, would depend on how the parties adjust.

An increase in swing districts would mean right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats would no longer be assured of winning seats after nomination. The state’s new “top-two” primary system would, at least in theory, also work against ideological rigidity. Together, they could create new and perhaps decisive blocs of moderates from both parties.

Republican Tony Quinn, one of the few genuine experts on redistricting and one of the commission’s sharpest critics, said he’s pleasantly surprised.

“The maps are balanced in partisan terms,” Quinn wrote in a blog Monday, and “both parties have reason to be pleased and displeased. There is no partisan advantage in these first maps. And the maps draw a remarkable number of politically marginal districts.”

The maps’ impact on the state’s 53 congressional members would be especially heavy — in part because they were especially benefited by the bipartisan gerrymander in 2001. With so many incumbents 60-plus years old, the maps probably would generate a large number of retirements and, with their replacements likely to be state legislators, would have a domino effect on the Capitol.

Geographically, the maps shift congressional and legislative seats to the fast-growing interior regions of the state. Quite a few of the interior’s new seats, however, are likely to be occupied by Hispanics, who are on the cusp of becoming the state’s largest ethnic group.

The process still has months of refinement to go, but so far appears to be fulfilling the promise of reform.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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