Politics Inside the Lines: How Redistricting Has Changed California Politics in 2022

Smart, savvy policy experts gathered together at SVLG’s roundtable titled Politics Inside the Lines: Redistricting 2022 on February 24 to offer meaningful insights about how an independent redistricting commission has shaken up California politics, in their opinion for the better. 

Kristen Petersen, SVLG’s Director of Government Relations, moderated a fascinating discussion with Paul Mitchell, owner of Redistricting Partners and VP at Political Data Inc.; Evan McLaughlin, VP of Redistricting Partners; and Kris Rosa, Partner at Sacramento-based lobbying firm Rostrum

The group discussed the impacts of the most recent round of redistricting for California, ultimately agreeing that it made the state more blue, and thus more representative of the state’s actual political leanings.    

This lively discussion helped attendees better understand the implications of redistricting with an independent commission. The process of redistricting is triggered by the US Census, which occurs every ten years, and the current round of newly drawn lines is only the second time the state of California has used an independent commission rather than letting the legislature determine district boundaries. In the past, electeds could effectively indicate that borders should not draw them out of their districts or pit two candidates from the same party against each other, and this remains the norm in many states, where parochial and party interests still dominate district lines. An independent commission can largely ignore these concerns, focusing on making districts as representative as possible of the population and their interests. 

“The California commission is what I consider the gold standard in terms of an independent process where you kind of strip out the politics,” Mitchell said. “The commissioners aren’t appointed by elected officials—they are a balance of Democrats, Republicans and independents, which is a great model as well.”

The 2020-2022 redistricting effort was impacted by President Trump’s legal challenges and by the pandemic, which caused delays in the census. The process lagged about four months behind, giving the commission more runway than they normally have, but also limiting the time they had to actually determine the district lines. 

While many assumed that creating new districts in this way would increase the number of moderates by essentially turning more districts purple, the panelists agreed that this wasn’t the case—rather than changing the political makeup of the state, redistricting has shown how blue California actually is. 

“What it shows us is that we went from being a blue state to being a much bluer state,” Rosa said. “We kind of walked away from a lot of the purple districts. There’s very few swing seats where we’re going to be on the edge of our seats and say, ‘Oh my gosh, who is going to win, the Democrat or the Republican?’”

With a bluer map overall, redistricting has made it much more difficult for State Assembly Republicans to overturn the Democratic supermajority of 27 votes. Assembly Republicans would have to win every seat that Newsom won by 18 points or less under the new lines, up from 8 points or less before redistricting. 

“So it is a higher, higher hurdle for Republicans to go and climb in the Assembly pretty substantially,” McLaughlin said. 

Senate Republicans would have to win every seat Newsom won by 12 points or less, which is the same as before redistricting. 

With Democrats campaigning against each other in many races, the competition will often be between liberals and moderates of the same party. Redistricting has also complicated things for incumbents, who may now be in overlapping districts. For example, incumbent A in District A, a Democrat, and incumbent B in district B, also a Democrat, may now face each other. These races between people who were not previously in opposition have led some leaders to move to other districts or in some cases seek other types of work. 

This “great reshuffling” of legislators has resulted in an unprecedented number of empty seats in Sacramento. Rather than fighting another incumbent for the same seat, some legislators are upleveling or down-leveling, seeking opportunities at the county, city or state levels. 

While some legislators may be disappointed with the changes, Rosa, Mitchell and McLaughlin agreed that it will lead to a more accurate representation of California’s true political makeup, and some previously underrepresented groups have seen themselves more empowered as the results of the new district boundaries have become clear. 

“Redistricting is not going to reinvent who we are,” Rosa said. “It’s reflecting more accurately who we are.”