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New redistricting panel takes aim at bizarre political boundaries

As the Citizens Redistricting Commission begins its work next month, members say, the 23rd Congressional District — which snakes 200 miles up the California coast — will be a good reminder of what not to do.

December 19, 2010|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger refers to it as the "ribbon of shame,'' a congressional district that stretches in a reed-thin line 200 miles along the California coast from Oxnard to the Monterey County line. Voters there refer to it as "the district that disappears at high tide."

Democratic lawmakers drew it that way to make sure one of their own won every election. The party has held the seat throughout the decade — since the last redistricting gave it a big edge in voter registration there.

Critics of that 2001 remapping have cited the coastal ribbon as Exhibit A — the reason, they say, that Californians were right to strip elected officials of the power to choose their voters and give the task of determining political boundaries to more ordinary citizens.

As the new Citizens Redistricting Commission begins its work next month, members say, the 23rd Congressional District will be a good reminder of what not to do.

"It's been used as an example of how absurd the process is,'' said Peter Yao, the commission's chairman. "It does not allow people to choose the candidate. They are forced to go with the party's choice.''

Republicans have protected themselves too. Using a spaghetti strip of land along the shore of heavily Democratic Long Beach, for example, they connected a GOP-leaning area of Orange County with a pouch of like-minded voters on the Palos Verdes Peninsula to create the 46th Congressional District.

The whole country, in fact, is marked with districts so distorted by gerrymandering that they are referred to by such names as "Rabbit on a Skateboard'' (in Illinois) and "Upside-Down Chinese Dragon'' (in Pennsylvania).

California, which voted two years ago to take the job of redrawing state districts from lawmakers, is one of 10 states that have given the job to a citizens group. But most of them are appointed by elected officials and are less independent than the Golden State's panel.

In the districts drawn by the Legislature the old way, every incumbent member of Congress and the state Legislature on the California ballot was reelected Nov. 2 — even as a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 21% of voters approve of the job being done by Congress and 12% like what state lawmakers do.

Now the bipartisan citizen commission, appointed through a process overseen by the state auditor, will draw both the Legislature's districts and California's congressional boundaries. Last month, voters added the federal districts to the panel's job.

Proponents of the change said it could alter campaigns and improve government. The new districts would be more competitive, forcing candidates to appeal to a broader range of voters, according to Tony Quinn, co-editor of the nonpartisan Target Book, which analyzes California legislative races, and a former Republican redistricting consultant.

"They would be more worried about getting elected, so their behavior would change," Quinn said. "They would reflect their districts much more."

Under the new rules, boundaries can no longer be drawn according to where an incumbent lives or how the lines would benefit him or her, said advisors to the commission.

Lines must be drawn "for publicly minded good rather than reflecting what gives a particular legislator an advantage,'' said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who advises the commission.

The new rules emphasize compactness, contiguity and the need to keep counties, cities, neighborhoods and other communities of interest together. The aim is to prevent redrawings such as the one that left San Luis Obispo County and some cities scattered among multiple districts.

Rep. Lois Capps (D- Santa Barbara) has easily won reelection every two years since the latest boundaries were drawn to create a district 44.3% Democratic and 32.9% Republican. Previously, she represented a district that was 39.1% Democratic and 39.4% Republican.

The map makers kept heavily Republican precincts out and connected heavily Democratic precincts along the coast, using areas that are just a few blocks wide.

"You can drive a golf ball across [the district] in a couple of places,'' said Tom Watson, a Republican businessman who unsuccessfully challenged Capps last month.

The boundaries also split the city of Ventura between Capps, who has about a fourth of it, and Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley). In 2000, before the last remapping, Gallegly's district was 40.6% Democratic and 39.8% Republican. Afterward, it was 45.9% Republican and 34.6% Democrat.

Redistricting expert Alan Clayton is concerned that black and Latino voters could lose ground under the new criteria, which he said are too vague about how much weight should be given to which factors and what constitutes "communities of interest." And, he said, a citizens panel need not be responsive to constituent groups the way lawmakers would be.

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