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California begins a new era in redistricting

Eight ordinary voters are chosen by lottery from among 36 applicants to serve on a panel to redraw political boundaries. They will pick six more from the same pool. The shift upends a system long friendly to incumbents.

November 18, 2010|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — A handful of everyday Californians were chosen Thursday to tackle the politically incendiary task of redrawing the state's voting districts — a job that voters decided to take away from political insiders.

A bookstore owner from Yolo County, a retired engineer from Claremont, an insurance agent from San Gabriel and an attorney from Norco are among those who will determine how legislative districts are drawn as part of an experiment that promises to drastically change the state's political landscape.

Until now, the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts were drawn every 10 years by state legislators in a process that critics said was often skewed for partisan advantage or to protect incumbents. Many officeholders have been able to skate from election to election without much in the way of serious competition.

But through a series of ballot measures, California voters have set the state on a radically different course with an unknown outcome. In 2008, voters gave the job of drawing legislative district lines to a new Citizens Redistricting Commission. This month, voters gave the commission additional powers, handing them authority over congressional districts. And Thursday, the first members of that new commission were picked by lottery.

Adding to the political upheaval is a completely new system for choosing candidates that abandons the current system of primaries for each party. Instead, under another measure approved by voters, candidates from all political parties will compete in the same primary starting in 2012, and the top two vote-getters will advance to the general election even if they are members of the same party. The two changes together will rattle a system that for decades has protected incumbent officeholders.

"For the first time, districts will be drawn by people who will be knowledgeable, impartial and as diverse as the state," said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause. "The new lines will not be drawn to simply protect an incumbent's ability to win reelection over and over again."

What effect those changes will have, however, remains anyone's guess.

Backers of the proposals have argued that the combination of the open primary and nonpartisan redistricting will be more competitive elections, a dilution of the power of party bosses, and candidates who are more responsive to voters than the entrenched special interests that bankroll political campaigns.

But none of that is guaranteed. Experts at the Center for Government Studies in L.A. have pointed out that one unintended effect of the changes is that winning in an election is about to become a lot more costly for candidates, because more competitive races take more money. That means, of course, candidates will probably have to hit up special interests for more cash.

The plan to have everyday citizens redraw political boundaries has been backed by many centrist Republicans, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and vigorously opposed by Democratic leaders and labor groups. Democratic leaders, who currently control the process because of their majorities in the state Legislature, tried to eliminate the citizens panel with an initiative two weeks ago that was rejected by state voters.

All that might suggest that Republicans will be the beneficiaries of the new process. And while that might happen, some analysts say just the opposite could be true.

Current districts were largely drawn to protect incumbents in both parties, and with Democrats' large edge in voter registration in California, some Republican incumbents may be the biggest losers in a more competitive environment. The real fear of Democratic officeholders, these analysts say, is not Republicans, but the possibility of a competitive primary in a newly drawn district.

The final outcome of the process could be politically momentous, but its first steps on Thursday were prosaic. Using bingo balls and a hand-cranked wire bingo cage, State Auditor Elaine Howle drew eight names from a group of 36, conducting separate drawings of Democrats, Republicans and voters affiliated with neither major party.

The candidate pool for the commission began with 30,000 applicants, which was winnowed through a series of steps and ended up with 60 names picked by a review panel chosen by Howle. The panel's mandate was to seek out "analytical skills, the ability to be impartial, and an appreciation for California's diverse demographics and geography."

Legislative leaders were empowered to remove 24 people from the pool — no reasons needed to be given — which they did last week.

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