Two California Bills Attempt to Make Redistricting More ‘Fair’

July 23, 2019 Updated: July 23, 2019

With last month’s Supreme Court decision to not interfere with political gerrymandering of political districts, many people expect states to take steps to ensure that their ruling parties stay in power by drawing congressional districts that benefit them.

The 5-4 decision claimed that partisan gerrymandering did not belong in the federal courts. The court’s conservative majority said that voters and elected officials should be the decision makers in these types of political disputes.

California, on the other hand, is taking an alternative route. Nearly a decade ago, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission was established to attempt to create a bipartisan, fair drawing of the state’s congressional, senate, assembly, and board of equalization districts. The state commission consists of 14 members, with five Republican, five Democratic, and four from neither major party.

Now, the state is going extra lengths to ensure that gerrymandering doesn’t become an issue at the local level. Democratic lawmakers are pushing forward two pieces of legislation, AB 849 and SB 139, to regulate how cities and counties draw their council and supervisory maps.

AB 849, introduced by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), would require districts to respect “the geographic integrity of any local neighborhood or local community of interest” for “effective and fair representation.”

SB 139, introduced by Assemblyman Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), would require counties with more than 250,000 residents to create independent redistricting commissions, with no one political party controlling a majority of the seats on the commission.

While the Supreme Court recently refused to get involved in the topic of gerrymandering, Chief Justice Roberts (pdf) informed the public, “the avenue for reform established by the Framers, and used by Congress in the past, remains open.”

A number of organizations and legislators have voiced opposition to these bills, albeit for different reasons.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund withdrew its support of SB 139 earlier this month after the bill was changed, allowing counties to give equal representation to both major parties on their committees. It’s now officially neutral on the bill.

State Senator John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) has opposed the gerrymandering of communities in Orange County in the past. When he served on the county’s board of supervisors, the districts planned to group together the largely Republican voting Vietnamese community while simultaneously splitting up the largely Democratic Hispanic community.

Moorlach was the only no vote and the measure passed. He told a reporter at the time, “I just wanted to stay with my principles. I’m opposed to gerrymandering.”

However, he has expressed opposition to SB 139, saying in a public statement, “I appreciated that spirit, but I get a little nervous about requirements—you shall versus you may.”

SB-139 has passed the state Senate 29-7 with two not voting, and it’s awaiting a final vote on the state Assembly floor, while AB 849 passed the Assembly 55-20, with five not voting, and it awaits a vote on the Senate floor. Both bills passed along party lines. A final vote on these bills is expected later this year.

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