Communities and the California Commission.

AuthorStephanopoulos, Nicholas O.
PositionIntroduction through III. Results B. Selected Vignettes 1. Success stories, p. 281-308


In most respects, the redistricting initiatives that California's voters approved in 2008 and 2010 were standard good-government fare. (1) As reformers had long advocated, the measures withdrew the power of drawing district lines from the State Legislature, and entrusted it to a new Citizens Redistricting Commission. (2) Also consistent with many earlier proposals, the measures set forth a specific set of criteria pursuant to which districts subsequently would be drawn. These criteria unsurprisingly included equal population, compliance with the Voting Rights Act, contiguity, compactness, and respect for political subdivisions (such as towns and counties) and communities of interest. (3)

What was unusual about the California initiatives was that they explicitly ranked these criteria--and, even more so, that they ranked subdivision and community preservation so high. After two provisions that duplicate existing federal obligations, (4) as well as the relatively trivial requirement of contiguity, (5) the next most important criterion is that "[t]he geographic integrity of any city, county ... local neighborhood, or local community of interest shall be respected in a manner that minimizes [its] division." (6) While many states have similar requirements on their books, (7) the California Constitution is unique in the premium that it now places on subdivision and community preservation. It is unique in clearly prioritizing this criterion--aimed at making districts more coherent and thus improving voter participation and the quality of representation---over values such as compactness, competition, and partisan fairness. (8)

Since the Commission finalized its inaugural set of district plans in August 2011, scholars have analyzed its performance along multiple dimensions. They have found, among other things, that the Commission-crafted districts are more compact, split fewer towns and counties, provide greater representation to minority groups, and are more competitive than their legislatively drawn predecessors. (9) However, there has been no effort to date to determine how congruent the Commission's districts are with communities of interest (as opposed to political subdivisions). As the authors of one study candidly admit, "Because it is difficult to establish a systematic definition of a community of interest, we do not attempt to evaluate the plans on that dimension." (10) Nor, for the same reason, do there exist earlier studies appraising any other states' efforts to comply with community preservation requirements. (11)

In this Article, then, 1 aim to assess quantitatively how closely the old and new California districts correspond to geographic communities of interest. I do so using a concept, "spatial diversity," that I introduced in a previous work of mine. (12) Spatial diversity refers to the heterogeneity of a larger entity's geographic subunits with respect to some variable of interest. For example, an entity is spatially diverse, in terms of income, if some of its subunits are rich, some are middle-class, and some are poor. But the entity is spatially homogeneous if most of its subunits feature the same income profile (whatever that may be). The connection between spatial diversity and the community-of-interest criterion is that highly spatially diverse districts tend to combine different geographic communities, while districts that are highly spatially uniform tend to coincide with a single community.

I employ two different kinds of data in my analysis. First, as in my earlier work, I rely on a wide array of demographic and socioeconomic information from the American Community Survey (ACS), covering vital areas such as race, ethnicity, age, income, education, profession, marital status, and housing. Second, I take advantage of California's frequent popular initiatives (PI), which enable voters to voice their policy preferences on a host of important issues: taxes, spending, crime, abortion, energy, the environment, government reform, etc. For both sets of data, I use a technique known as factor analysis to collapse the raw variables into a much smaller number of composite factors. These factors capture much of the data's original variance and reveal which raw variables, in which combinations, best explain California's residential patterns. The factors are also the inputs for all of my spatial diversity calculations.

The Article's principal finding is that, by a variety of metrics, California's new assembly, senate, and congressional districts are more congruent with geographic communities of interest than their predecessors. Their average levels of spatial diversity are lower, with respect to both the ACS and PI factors. There are fewer districts with extremely high spatial diversity scores, particularly in terms of the ACS factors. And at the congressional level and in terms of the ACS factors (for which interstate comparisons are possible), California's new districts rank nineteenth in the country in adjusted spatial diversity instead of fifth. This is persuasive evidence that the Commission indeed complied with its mandate to respect the integrity of geographic communities. But there is also reason to think that the Commission could have done an even better job, especially vis-a-vis the assembly plan and the PI factors.

The Article complements these results with a series of vignettes that identify both areas where the Commission was able to raise dramatically the level of district-community congruence, and areas where it seems to have fallen short. For example, one existing congressional district combines gritty portions of the San Fernando Valley with affluent locales such as Beverly Park and Sherman Oaks. This district's more spatially homogeneous successor, in contrast, retains its Valley core but then swells to the north, east, and west instead of veering south into Los Angeles's tonier precincts. On the other hand, the compact African-American community in South L.A. is divided between three districts under both the old and new congressional plans. The Commission appears to have missed an opportunity to create a spatially homogeneous district congruent with this minority community.

The Article proceeds as follows: Part I describes California's history with the community-of-interest criterion (which long predates the 2008 and 2010 initiatives). Part ii explains the methodology that I use to analyze how closely districts correspond to geographic communities. Finally, Part III presents my key empirical findings--both for the state as a whole and for particular regions.


    The requirement that districts coincide with geographic communities of interest did not materialize out of thin air in California's 2008 and 2010 redistricting initiatives. To the contrary, the criterion has a rich history, in both case law and earlier initiatives, stretching back almost forty years. In this Part, I briefly summarize this history, which is essential for understanding how district-community congruence came to achieve such prominence in California's current district-drawing process.

    In the 1970s round of redistricting, the first after the one person, one vote revolution of the 1960s, California's Democratic-controlled Legislature was unable to agree on district plans with Republican Governor Ronald Reagan. (13) The California Supreme Court therefore was forced to intervene, appointing three Special Masters to devise plans for the Assembly, the Senate, and the state's congressional delegation. (14) In the report that accompanied their plans, the Masters described in detail the criteria that they employed. One of the most important of these criteria was respect for communities of interest:

    The social and economic interests common to the population of an area which are probable subjects of legislative action, generally termed a "community of interests," should be considered in determining whether the area should be included within or excluded from a proposed district in order that all of the citizens of the district might be represented reasonably, fairly and effectively. Examples of such interests, among others, are those common to an urban area, a rural area, an industrial area or an agricultural area, and those common to areas in which the people share similar living standards, use the same transportation facilities, have similar work opportunities, or have access to the same media of communication relevant to the election process. (15) In its 1973 decision upholding the Masters' plans, the California Supreme Court lauded their "over-all reasonableness and excellence." (16) The Court also noted that "there is broad agreement that the ... criteria [used by the Masters] are appropriate," and that "legislators and congressmen affected thereby, many amici curiae, and others who have expressed themselves" all approved of the plans. (17) Scholars concurred that the Masters' districts were geographically compact, fair to both major parties, responsive to changes in public opinion, and conducive to minority representation. (18) And California's voters embraced several of the Masters' criteria (though not the community preservation requirement) in a legislatively referred 1980 initiative. (19)

    In contrast to this success story, California's redistricting experience in the 1980s was a debacle (except from the perspective of Democratic partisans). In full control of the state government, Democrats managed to implement a set of egregious gerrymanders--though only after their initial efforts were thwarted by a popular referendum, (20) and their subsequent plans spawned litigation that made it to the United States Supreme Court. (21) So great was the public's dissatisfaction that five separate initiatives aimed at reforming the state's redistricting process garnered enough signatures to make it onto the ballot. (22) While none of these measures became law, four would...

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