SACRAMENTO — The last time the Legislature drew California's voting districts, only a handful of people knew the unmarked offices where the mapmakers toiled.
Why the secrecy?
To separate those who were drawing the lines from fellow lawmakers' pleas to have a childhood home or a favorite parish included in their new district -- or to exclude the home of a potential challenger.
"It's pretty technical work," said John Burton, the San Francisco Democrat who led the Senate during the 2001 redistricting, "and you can't do it with somebody coming in every day asking for stupid stuff."
Backers of Proposition 11 on the Nov. 4 ballot want to install a stronger barrier than unmarked doors between legislators' self-interest and political mapmaking. They seek to take the job away from the Legislature entirely and give it to a commission of 14 interested citizens who would operate in a public spotlight.
At its simplest, Proposition 11 would remove the Legislature's conflict of interest in drawing its districts after the 2010 census and each decade thereafter.
But proponents -- who include Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the League of Women Voters -- promise more. They argue that independent redistricting will help make the Legislature more capable of solving healthcare, water supply, budget and other intractable troubles.
They reason that when districts are drawn with an overwhelming number of Democratic or Republican voters, as they tend to be when legislators do the job, the general election winner is practically predetermined. In safely drawn districts, competition comes only in primary elections.
To protect themselves from attacks by fellow Democrats or Republicans in the primary campaigns, incumbents tend to follow party dogma, the proponents say. The result is a Legislature with few centrist politicians and frequent partisan gridlock.
Last month, Schwarzenegger signed a state budget that was a record-breaking 85 days late because Republican and Democratic legislators couldn't compromise. Afterward, the governor immediately touted Proposition 11.
"This is a fixed system," he told reporters on the Capitol steps, "a system that rewards legislators for rigid partisanship, and a system that punishes legislators for wanting to come in the middle and to go for compromise."
Other Proposition 11 supporters include Common Cause, the California Taxpayers Assn., AARP, California Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business.
Fighting the measure are the California Democratic Party and some allies, including unions for teachers and government workers. Under current rules, Democrats would control the next redistricting if they maintain their dominance of the Legislature.
Some foes call Proposition 11 a Republican power grab.
Jay Hansen, lobbyist for the State Building & Construction Trades Council, which donated $25,000 against Proposition 11, noted that major donors to the "yes" campaign include Republican oilman T. Boone Pickens and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"People are willing to give big money because they think it's going to increase the number of Republicans in the Legislature," said Hansen.
Drafters of Proposition 11 say they've got plenty of Democratic support, including former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, former Gov. Gray Davis and former Controller Steve Westly.
"Our goal is not necessarily to try to shake up the entire partisan balance in the Legislature," said Kathay Feng, director of California Common Cause. "Our goal is to make sure communities and neighborhoods have a voice in redistricting."
But opponents say the "yes" side's campaign claim that the measure would make races more competitive is false.
They note that nothing in the initiative requires mapmakers to try to balance Republican and Democratic voters evenly so that district races are more competitive. They call the selection of the redistricting panel convoluted and predict deadlock. Proposition 11 requires nine of 14 commissioners -- balanced among Democrats, Republicans and others -- to adopt final maps.
"If you want to see the same sort of gridlock with redistricting that we've seen in the budget, then Prop. 11 is your answer," said No on Proposition 11 spokesman Paul Hefner.
Several groups with long histories of defending minority voting rights also oppose Proposition 11. They say that some goals it would impose on mapmakers -- including that two Assembly districts be nested inside each state Senate district and that cities be kept intact where possible -- would eliminate the flexibility that line-drawers need to give Latino, Asian and African American neighborhoods enough voting power to sway elections.