In the 1980s, a joke that ran through California political circles was that more turnover occurred in the Soviet Union’s Politburo than in the state’s U.S. House delegation. The laugh-line still worked well after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. From 2002 to 2010, the partisan re-election rate for California House seats was 99.6 percent. Only once in 265 House races in general elections during those years did a district’s representation flip parties, going from Republican to Democratic. That stability ended last year after California (STOCA1) voters in 2010 gave a citizen’s panel the power to redraw the House districts. The impact, combined with a new primary system, was immediate. One out of four of the state’s 53 congressional incumbents departed through retirements or defeats in the 2012 primaries and elections. “You’ve had voters shoehorned into districts for the sake of maintaining incumbency and we aren’t doing that in California anymore,” said Kim Alexander, founder and president of California Voter Foundation. “It was a big shakeout. That’s probably what would happen everywhere if you had fair redistricting.”
California, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington state have all given the authority to draw congressional boundaries to independent commissions, a model that good-government advocates say can blunt incumbent lawmakers from choosing which voters they represent.
Four other states are testing ways to remove partisan politics from redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines to reflect demographic changes documented in the census.
Redistricting is intended to ensure House members represent roughly equal size populations. Yet from the first Congress, party leaders began exploiting the map-making exercise by weakening the voting strength of some groups to gain partisan advantage, a practice known as gerrymandering.