Here We Go Again: Reform in California

Forget the midnight ride of Paul Revere, Callista Gingrich’s jewelry collection and Anthony Weiner’s … well, you know. The most important political people right now are 14 Californians you don’t know. They are the members of the Citizens Redistricting Commission of this great state.

American elections are rarely decided by debates in New Hampshire or even hundreds of millions of dollars in television advertising. By and large, American elections are determined by who comes out to vote, the fine print of election laws and squiggly lines on state maps. Except for presidential elections, which can surprise you, more than 90 percent of congressional and legislative elections are decided before ballots are even printed.

California, ever ready to reform itself, the country and democracy with referendum and initiative, has now embraced “citizen redistricting.” Drawing the lines of congressional and legislative districts has always been a secret weapon of professional politicians. New districts have to be drawn after each census (2010, right now) and there have been two basic ways to do that:

(1) In states where one party dominates, state legislators of the majority party, using census data and past voting patterns, draw lines to create districts to maximize their numbers in the legislature and in Congress. “Gerrymandering” they called it in high school civics, after a particularly clever 19th-century governor of Massachusetts named Elbridge Gerry, who created a district that looked like a salamander.

(2) Legislators of both parties draw lines to protect incumbents. Themselves.

The California problem was that the politicians had created what were basically Democratic districts, usually in the cities, and Republican districts in the rest of the state. One consequence of that was primary elections where the more extreme candidates in each party usually won, leading to more and more political polarization. Moderates, those rational outcasts in both parties, were being squeezed further and further out.

(More reforms: California has opted for open primaries. The top two finishers, regardless of party, will face each other in the general election. But that is a story for another time.)

So, in referenda in 2008 and 2010, the voters of California, those who came out, decided what the state needed was a panel of 14 ordinary citizens–three Democrats, three Republicans and two independents, who would then choose six other members. Thirty thousand people applied to become commissioners. It was a complicated piece of business, picking those first eight; there was vetting, interviews and then a lottery.

The commissioners had to follow certain rules. Obviously, the population of each of California’s 53 congressional districts had to be roughly equal, minorities had to be protected under federal Voter Rights legislation, city and county boundaries had to be taken into consideration and so did “communities of interest.” In California, those words mean that people who live along the Pacific Ocean have different interests than farmers and desert dwellers. And, specifically, the commissioners could not take into account regional political registration. It was not their business to make districts competitive.

The first draft proposal, supported by a unanimous vote of the commissioners, was released last weekend. It seemed fair and balanced, as they say at Fox News. But because of changing demographics between the 2000 and 2010 censuses–there are many more Latino voters now–the draft maps would most likely produce three or four more Democratic members of Congress, and more Democratic state legislators as well.

Ignoring local realpolitik, the commission was praised in newspaper editorials, and politicians were left speechless by the unrealistic fairness of it all. One example: Two Democratic congressmen of note, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, were thrown into the same new draft district, a new one that might be inclined to support a Latino candidate.

The next step in this adventure in democracy will be 11 more hearings around the state, and then a new draft map will be drawn. That will be fun.

Who are the winners, then, of this new California do-gooding? The lawyers. California is headed into a year where there will be more lawsuits than days of sunshine.

The original article by senior fellow, Richard Reeves, can be found at TruthDig.com.