Designer Districts: Safe Seats Tailor Made for Incumbents

Publication Date: April 2005

Publisher: Common Cause Education Fund

Author(s): Edwin Davis; Jon Goldin-Dubois; Mike Surrusco

Research Area: Politics

Keywords: Incumbents; Redistricting


Coverage: California


Every ten years, politicians across the country gear up for an intense struggle for their political lives, making certain that the new district lines preserve their own political futures and that of their party.

Because the process affects the political life and death of politicians, it is an intensely political and partisan struggle. This battle most often takes place behind closed doors and gets little attention from the press or public until the district maps are revealed.

In California, as in many other states, the redistricting process is most often dominated by incumbent officeholders who make deals to preserve their own political turf and ensure years of non-competitive elections.

This report shows how redistricting, the re-drawing of political boundaries, is dominated by
incumbent officeholders drawing lines to ensure their own re-election. It is a system that does more to protect the interests of incumbents than serve the voters of California.

Our analysis of elections since 1982, covering three redistricting cycles, shows that competition was suppressed when redistricting was in the hands of incumbents in the 1980s and 2000s. But after a court-imposed redistricting in 1991, with lines drawn by three retired
judges appointed by the California Supreme Court, competition rose in both U.S. House and state legislative races.