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Drawing New Maps a Daunting Possibility

October 24, 2005|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — They have no official position on California's proposed redistricting initiative, but county election chiefs across the state dread the prospect of voters passing Proposition 77.

If the measure passes on Nov. 8, they say, they may not have enough time to get ready for the next election, in June.

"It's hellacious for us," said Stephen L. Weir, Contra Costa County registrar. "The rules under which we'd have to operate are pretty much impossible."

Proposition 77 would require three retired judges to redraw California's political districts "for use at the next statewide primary and general elections," presumably June and November 2006.

The drawing of new districts wouldn't take long. Some experts say it could be done in a few days with computer mapping software.

But for the people who oversee county elections, getting new boundaries for 120 Senate and Assembly seats, 53 congressional seats and four Board of Equalization districts would merely be a first step. They would have to redraw 25,000 precincts to fit the new districts, reassign polling places and tell voters how to find them.

All of that would have to be done by March so sample ballots could be prepared and mailed before the June election. Officials probably wouldn't get new maps until late December.

Political districts are usually redrawn by the Legislature once every decade, based on new census data, and then county officials have months to update their systems to match the maps. Opponents of Proposition 77 say that pattern should continue, because an estimated 3 million residents are new to California since lines were last drawn in 2001.

But Steve Poizner, a former Silicon Valley executive who heads the Yes on 77 campaign, says that "when you have a crisis, you can't wait six years" for the next census.

"The state continues to mount a debt, the public school system's gone from first to worst, the transportation system is decaying," said Poizner, who is also a Republican candidate for state insurance commissioner. He said the state has a divisive Legislature that's a byproduct of districts deliberately shaped to ensure the reelection of incumbents.

"We have a broken state," Poizner said. "It's not the problem of just the Democrats, it's not the problem of just the Republicans."

As far back as March, the California Assn. of Clerks and Election Officials said in a report that the deadline set by Proposition 77 "poses serious risks to the accuracy and viability of the administration" of the June 2006 election.

They point out that the results of the Nov. 8 special election won't be certified by the secretary of state until Dec. 17. If the vote on Proposition 77 is close and a final result isn't clear until the election is certified, there will be less than two weeks -- during the Christmas holiday -- for what must happen next. Legislative leaders would have to choose the judges, and those judges would have to redraw districts and hold at least three public hearings.

Election officials say that barring an act of the Legislature to stretch deadlines, they would need maps of the new districts by Dec. 30. That's the first day that people who want to run for office can begin gathering voter signatures in support of their candidacy to avoid paying a filing fee.

For example, a candidate for the Legislature can either pay $1,080.80 -- 1% of the job's annual pay -- or collect 3,000 signatures of support between Dec. 30 and Feb. 23.

In its attempt to blunt the influence of lawmakers on the drawing of districts, Proposition 77 would set up a process for choosing the judges.

First, the Judicial Council, the policymaking body of California courts, would select 24 retired judges who are willing to serve as redistricting "special masters." From that list, the top four Democratic and Republican leaders in the Legislature would each choose three judges who are not registered with their respective political parties.

Each lawmaker could then strike one of a fellow lawmaker's nominations. Three judges would then be chosen randomly from the remaining pool; names would be drawn until at least one member was a Republican and one a Democrat.

Few people know better than Paul McKaskle what the actual drawing of districts involves. When the state Supreme Court oversaw California's redistricting in 1973 and 1991 because the governor and Legislature had deadlocked, the retired judges chosen to do the job turned to McKaskle. The University of San Francisco law professor has done remapping with pencils, rulers, erasers and by computer.

Today's computers and software make it possible to redraw lines in a week, he said.

"It think it's theoretically possible," McKaskle said. "Whether it's politically expedient is a much dicier question. It would have to be done so fast, without much time for review."

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