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Revisiting redistricting

November 12, 2005

IN THE LAST THREE DAYS, THE governor and the Democratic leaders of both the state Senate and Assembly all pledged to change the way congressional and legislative districts are drawn in California, taking the job away from lawmakers and turning it over to an independent commission.

Quick: Make them sign a blood oath and lock this deal in concrete.

It seems surprising that the Legislature would make noises favoring redistricting, given that state lawmakers campaigned so hard against Proposition 77, which would have done the job. Their negative campaigning -- with heavy financial support and highly deceptive advertising from opponents, including the public employee unions -- helped assure that the measure would go down in flames.

Yet legislators seem to be aware that there is still widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. Good-government groups and many California newspapers, including this one, began agitating for reform right after the fiasco of the 2004 election, when 153 legislative and congressional seats were on the ballot, yet not a single one changed party hands. By now, in spite of Proposition 77's defeat, legislators know that change is coming sooner or later. Their strategy is to do it themselves rather than face a hostile system adopted by initiative.

Proposition 77 would have created a panel of three retired judges to oversee the redistricting process. Opponents, often conceding that the current system must be changed, argued that the panel should be more diverse. They also objected to the provision that directed the redistricting to occur in time for the 2006 election. Many election officials said there wasn't enough time to draw the districts and meet a variety of preelection deadlines.

The proposed alternative under study in the Legislature differs from Proposition 77 in important details, but it would achieve the same broad goal. Senate Constitutional Amendment 3, sponsored by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), would create a seven-member commission, of which no more than three could come from the same political party. There may be some arguing over details, but with the support of the governor and the Legislature's leaders, there's no reason the amendment can't be passed within the first 30 days of the 2006 Legislature and put on the June primary election ballot.

The key problem with Proposition 77 was that it was drafted by anti-tax and business groups with no input from the Legislature. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger embraced it as part of his "Year of Reform" special election campaign, which gained no traction with voters and was seen as a GOP power grab. In an overwhelmingly Democratic state, that's the kiss of death.

With bipartisan support, the next attempt at redistricting would surely be more successful.

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