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UC Berkeley Press Release

Redistricting reform plans could make California's political landscape somewhat more competitive

– Redistricting reform could increase the competitiveness of some California congressional and legislative districts, according to a new study released today (Tuesday, Feb. 7) by the Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) at the University of California, Berkeley.

After drawing dozens of potential redistricting plans, researchers concluded that attempting to create more competitive seats while also balancing other criteria would probably produce 12 to 14 competitive congressional districts and 12 to 17 competitive assembly seats. Currently, the state has no congressional districts and five assembly districts that fall within the study's definition of a competitive range. Increased competitiveness has been one of the outcomes sought by those aiming to take the process of redrawing legislative districts out of the hands of the legislature.

The study cautions, however, that while such districts would be closely divided along partisan lines, they would not necessarily produce frequent partisan turnover. Factors such as incumbency, monetary advantages, national political trends, and candidate quality make it unlikely that closely divided districts would ensure a sharp increase in the frequency with which seats change hands, researchers found.

The ability of any redistricting plan to create a high rate of partisan turnover is "greatly limited," the researchers wrote.

"We recommend against any specific attempt to define competitiveness or to specify a given number of competitive seats in any proposed new redistricting law," the study says. "Instead, we would recommend that if any language about competitiveness is considered for inclusion in a new law, that it be very general. Because there are so many different perspectives in this state about fairness and what matters in redistricting, any proposed line-drawing process should have guarantees for the public submissions of proposals, open meetings and a diverse membership."

The study, supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation, analyzes the effect of various kinds of redistricting plans in the hope of contributing to the ongoing debate about how to reform the California redistricting process. This topic has received substantial recent attention, particularly in light of the failure last November of Proposition 77, which would have overhauled the redistricting process.

"This study's insights into the possible impacts of redistricting reform are important and timely. We are hopeful that this report will inform the bipartisan efforts currently underway to reform the redistricting process," said James E. Canales, president and CEO of The James Irvine Foundation.

Researchers produced a series of redistricting plans using various criteria, including increased competitiveness, respect for city and county boundaries, compactness, contiguity, the requirements of the voting rights act, and equality of population. They did not use incumbent addresses, information that is typically included in current redistricting plans, nor did they consider communities of interest.

Researchers then analyzed the number of new districts likely to contain a registration advantage of less than three percentage points for Republicans or 10 percentage points for Democrats. That range is considered a closely divided district, since Republicans generally have a higher rate of turnout than Democrats.

When researchers attempted to balance all of the redistricting criteria used in the study, they found that their plans produced 12 to 14 congressional districts within the competitive range, and 12 to 17 assembly seats. Creating additional districts in the competitive range through a balanced, legally viable plan would be extremely difficult given the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act and California's underlying political demography - the fact that Democrats tend to live near Democrats and Republicans near Republicans.

Researchers also found that closely divided districts do not guarantee that seats will change partisan control frequently. Analyzing election returns from 1992 to 2000, when the state used a redistricting plan drawn by judges, the study found that only six of 37 California congressional races in closely divided districts resulted in party turnover.

Maps and data are available at: http://igs.berkeley.edu/redistricting_research/. Researchers will later issue a supplemental report on nesting of districts and a study on transparency.

The analysis was based on official state redistricting data from the California Statewide Database, which is housed at IGS. The study was conducted by Bruce Cain, director of IGS and professor of political science; Karin Mac Donald, director of the Statewide Database; and Iris Hui, a graduate student in political science.