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California's 'independent' redistricting fiasco: a cautionary tale

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ProPublica has a breathlessly delivered article about California's redistrict process that was "surreptitiously" hijacked by Democrats for maximum partisan gain in their new Congressional maps. It’s an instructive tale of how arguably the most extremely “independent” process in the country led—at least at the Congressional level—to even more lopsided lines than before.

"What emerges is a portrait of skilled political professionals armed with modern mapping software and detailed voter information who managed to replicate the results of the smoked-filled rooms of old,” ProPublica tells us. You can read the full article here.

In the end, there’s something violently Californian about the whole thing. Like their solution to taxes—ever increasing mandates but an unwillingness to tax them—the redistricting process appears to be an extreme perfect-as-the-enemy-of-the-good situation: commissioners so thoroughly sanitized of any hint of partisanship they were blind to the partisan manipulations happening right in front of them.

Back in California, the commission was getting organized. Its first task was to pick commissioners. The ballot initiative excluded virtually anyone who had any previous political experience. Run for office? Worked as a staffer or consultant to a political campaign? Given more than $2,000 to a candidate in any year? “Cohabitated” for more than 30 days in the past year with anyone in the previous categories? You’re barred.

Now, California lines are drawn to double, maybe triple, the number of safe Congressional seats Democrats were thought to gain in this redistricting cycle. Simply put, the system was gamed.

I wrote back in September about the pitfalls of independent redistricting (I actually didn’t delve into California’s process because it was a Rube Goldberg machine) as New York was moving toward the drawing of its own lines. We’re still waiting on those lines, but even now a majority of New Yorkers are saying in polls that they want independent redistricting, the less connected to the legislature the better.

But as I pointed out in my article, these “independent commissions” are often one step removed from the legislators they’re supposed to shut out of the process. In California, independence was pushed so far that the commissioners, who’d been picked because of their complete disconnection from politics, didn’t have the tools or expertise to know they were being played. They were manipulated by very knowledgeable, highly partisan Democratic interests that filled the political vacuum with AstroTurf groups and faux community spokespeople who pushed a calculated redistricting vision into law.

There were certainly many failures in the California process than just this idea of independence taken to the cliff and then, ultimately, thrown off. Still, it’s an important cautionary tale as New York seriously considers its own process of redistricting. Whether it’s in a week or in another ten years, we will likely have some sort of independent redistricting process. And while there are many, many reasons why New York could never be in the same spot as California, rooted in whatever we do needs to be some acknowledgment that there really is no such thing as a truly independent redistricting processes.

And, frankly, as we’ve seen in California, for all the reasons we like to talk about independent redistricting—fairness, equity, greater electoral participation—it’s probably a good thing.