DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK, most states are like Texas, with legislatures holding the power to draw a congressional district. That often results in one party dominating a district more or less permanently, so California voters had a solution. They decided to take the process out of the hands of lawmakers.
Here's NPR's Richard Gonzales.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: To understand redistricting in California, consider this: Over a 10 year period beginning in 2000, there were 255 congressional races and only one seat - that's right, one seat - changed parties. So in 2008 and 2010, voters approved two propositions to put the job of redrawing political district lines in the hands of a non-partisan Citizens Redistricting Commission
ERIC MCGHEE: It was created in response to the redistricting plan that was drawn 10 years ago, which was drawn by the legislature and everybody agreed was drawn to protect sitting incumbents.
GONZALES: That's Eric McGee, a redistricting guru at the Public Policy Institute of California
The new Citizens Redistricting Commission was composed of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four independents. The commission held 34 public hearings and heard testimony from 2,700 people. In August 2011, new political district maps were unveiled in a news conference.
Here's the then-Citizens Commission chairman Vincent Barabba.
VINCENT BARABBA: The maps we adopted today did not consider incumbents, potential candidates and political party registration in drawing the districts.
GONZALES: But if voters thought that the Commission could take politics out of re-districting, they were wrong. Just a few minutes later in that same news conference, a Republican commissioner, Michael Ward, said that wasn't the case.
MICHAEL WARD: The Citizens Redistricting Commission has certified maps that are fundamentally flawed as a result of a tainted political process. This commission made decisions based on political motives.
GONZALES: The new maps appeared to favor Democrats in races for the state Assembly, state Senate and Congress. Democrats said the new district lines merely reflected demographic changes that already had shaded California blue.
The GOP eventually filed four legal challenges against the new district lines but the courts rejected them all. Among their arguments, the GOP insisted that areas in California that were traditionally Republican strongholds had higher growth rates than Democratic districts and that should have produced more Republican seats.
But Commissioner Barabba, himself a Republican, didn't buy it.
BARABBA: The problem was although the growth did take place in those areas, it was by people who were coming in, both Hispanics and Asians, who are less likely to vote on the Republican side of the ticket.
GONZALES: Barabba says if you want evidence that the Commission didn't favor Democrats just look at the re-drawn 30th Congressional District in Southern California's San Fernando Valley.
Thanks to redistricting and the end of partisan primaries, the race pitted two Democratic incumbents against each other. They were former political allies Howard Berman and Brad Sherman. Both Congressmen had similar voting records, but their campaign was nasty, personal, and one night before a shrieking college crowd, the candidates got nose-to-nose.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
REPRESENTATIVE BRAD SHERMAN: You wanna get into this?
GONZALES: You wanna get into this, Sherman yelled as he grabbed Berman by the shoulder.
But after their theatrics, Sherman won that race largely because he had inherited many of the voters from his old district in the newly re-drawn 30th.
By election time, the impact of the redistricting process was clear. Democrats won two-thirds majorities in the State Assembly and Senate. They also picked up four additional congressional seats.
For California Republicans, redistricting is still a bitter pill. Here's former state Republican Party chief Tom Del Beccaro.
TOM DEL BECCARO: The election results showed that the actual seats were too difficult for Republicans to win, and you can make the argument that how they were drawn up was wrong, that commission process was corrupted. And I think the results of the election show that we should have done everything we could to fight for better lines.
GONZALES: But increasing partisan competition was never part of the Commission's charge. Its job was to draw compact districts of equal population size, ensure minority representation and if possible not divide cities and counties.
The Public Policy Institute's Eric McGee says voters shouldn't be surprised with the way things turned out.
ERIC MCGEE: In modern politics, Democrats and Republicans don't tend to live in the same places. It's hard to draw those competitive seats. So it's not hard to see how somebody could be disappointed in the outcome. But I think if you had set your expectations in a realistic way, they actually exceeded what could be expected.
GONZALES: The bottom line, says McGee, is that the independent Citizen's Commission drew up new district lines in a process far more transparent and open to the public than when the job was done by lawmakers.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News.