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What might happen if Democrats succeed in expanding voting? California has some answers.

In California, reforms like those in H.R. 1 led to a more involved electorate, higher turnout and more legislators of color being elected to office.

- March 16, 2021

Last week, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a sweeping voting rights and ethics reform package. The bill, at nearly 800 pages, seeks to expand voting rights, reform campaign financing and strengthen ethics laws for members of Congress.

While the bill was advanced by House Democrats, many of the electoral reforms mirror innovations supported and adopted by California Republicans. California’s experience gives us a glimpse of how H.R. 1 might affect the United States, if signed into law. In California, the reforms have paved the way for a more involved electorate — including greater turnout from marginalized communities and more legislators of color being elected to office.

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H.R. 1 would install independent redistricting commissions in every state. California’s already done this.

Among other things, the bill calls for independent redistricting commissions in all 50 states. Currently, in most states, state legislatures redraw voting district maps themselves. As a result, whichever party holds the state legislative majority in a redistricting year can draw district lines that would give their party an advantage. For example, in 2010, Republicans controlled Pennsylvania’s state legislature. Although more than 50 percent of Pennsylvania voters are registered Democrats, after the Republican-drawn map went into effect in 2012, Democrats won only five of the state’s 18 congressional district races. In 2018, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court found that the state had been grossly gerrymandered to favor Republicans, and it ordered the state to redraw district lines.

California stripped redistricting power from the state legislature more than a decade ago. Pushed by the nonpartisan good governance organization Common Cause, California voters passed Proposition 11, the Voters First Act, in 2008, officially removing the legislature’s responsibility to draw new state legislative districts and placing that task with an independent citizens redistricting commission. The move was heavily supported by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and at the time strongly opposed by House Speaker and California Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

In 2010, voters broadened the commission’s mandate by also giving it the power to draw district lines for U.S. congressional seats. The Citizens Redistricting Commission is charged with using a party-blind process that respects communities of interest. The 14-member commission includes five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents. Many of the state’s Democrats feared this gave too much power to conservatives in the heavily Democratic state. Despite these concerns, the move toward independent redistricting is being replicated in other states. Arizona created a five-member commission in 2000 and this year, for the first time, Michigan will use an independent commission to redraw its lines.

H.R. 1 would make it easier to vote. California did that already.

H.R. 1 would also require states to make voting easier through such mechanisms as automatic voter registration, no-excuse vote-by-mail, postage-paid mail-in ballots and support for web-based voter registration. California tried these practices as part of the 2016 California Voter’s Choice Act, which expanded access to early and more flexible voting. The nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that because of the reforms, more people cast ballots. While the report is fairly vague about which communities increased their voting rates, in 2020, California saw the largest voter turnout rate since 1952, with most of the credit going to the state’s decision to mail ballots to every registered voter.

To encourage more Californians to participate, California’s reformers have worked to engage communities that have often felt alienated from elections, have been less likely to vote in the past or have been historically disenfranchised. To encourage such groups as racial or ethnic minority voters, newly naturalized citizens, rural voters, seniors and people with disabilities to engage, Proposition 11 charged California’s independent redistricting commission with conducting robust public outreach and education before drawing its lines. The 2010 commission received more than 20,000 submissions from the public regarding which communities should be kept together when redrawing district boundaries.

California’s open top-two primary changes partisan dynamics

California has also introduced a reform that’s not in H.R. 1: an open top-two primary, which means that the top two vote-receiving candidates in a primary election advance to a general election regardless of party. First held in 2012, the change has resulted in a number of general elections in which both candidates are from the same party, such as the race for a U.S. Senate seat in 2016 between Democrats Kamala D. Harris and Loretta Sanchez.

With Jane Junn, I recently conducted research that found that since these and other reforms — independent redistricting, term limits and the top-two primary — voters have elected more people of color to California’s state legislature. In fact, between the years 2010 and 2016, when these reforms took place, the number of Latino/a legislators elected to California’s state assembly and congressional delegation rose more than 10 percentage points.

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Scholars and other observers generally agree that having larger proportions of citizens vote is one sign of a healthy democracy. Just now, 43 state legislatures are considering a total of more than 250 bills that would restrict voting. For instance, in Georgia, SB 241 would limit absentee voting, after the state sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate. The Supreme Court recently heard oral argument over the constitutionality of a 2016 Arizona law that banned collecting and delivering another person’s completed ballot and that banned counting any provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct. The court decision in this case, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, could weaken the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s protections against racial discrimination in voting.

H.R. 1, designed to counter those incursions into voting rights, will now be considered by the Senate. In my earlier research, I’ve found that some communities of color, particularly Asian American and some Latinx communities, could be persuaded to support Republicans. Currently, members of these two groups report that political parties do not reach out to solicit their votes. While some state Democratic parties are working on such outreach, Republicans do not appear to be doing so. No Republican House members voted for H.R. 1. The bill appears unlikely to pass the evenly divided Senate unless Democrats change the filibuster rules.

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Sara Sadhwani is an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College and a commissioner on the 2020 California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

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