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Editorial

California's voting lines of contention

Critics on the right and the left are finding fault with California's proposed new voting districts.

August 22, 2011

Funny, isn't it, that California Republicans pressed so hard to get a nonpartisan citizens commission instead of the usual political bosses to shape congressional and legislative districts, but now call the whole process a corrupt backroom deal. That couldn't be because the results appear to help the prospects of Democrats, now, could it?

Many Republican politicos had been complaining for weeks about the new line-drawing process, especially after seeing "visualizations" drawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission for new state Senate districts. Some Republican movers and shakers suggested they would sue; momentum now seems to be moving toward a referendum petition.

It was a different story three years ago when Charles T. Munger Jr., a researcher at Stanford University's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and a reform-minded Republican, put a chunk of his substantial personal fortune behind Proposition 11, the initiative to create the commission and charge it with drawing new lines for Assembly, state Senate and Board of Equalization districts. An even larger donation came from Arnold Schwarzenegger's "dream team," the amalgam of big-moneyed interests who gave to the moderate Republican governor's causes.

Meanwhile, Democratic power brokers who didn't want to give up their kingmaking clout campaigned for keeping the status quo system, in which party leaders met privately to divvy up districts. Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown told California Democrats who gathered for the national convention in Denver that their most urgent task, after electing Barack Obama, was defeating the redistricting initiative. And they almost succeeded. Proposition 11 passed with a wafer-thin majority.

The split between Democrats and Republicans was even more vociferous in 2010, when a new measure — Proposition 20 — was put before voters to extend the commission's reach to congressional districts. It passed by a wider margin.

One of the dangers of reform is that everyone, of every political stripe, expects the change to work in their favor. But Propositions 11 and 20 were never supposed to do most of the things that those who are dissatisfied say they want. It was never, for example, intended to make districts more competitive. In fact, commission members were not even allowed to consider party registration in the districts they drew. Inland communities will continue to elect mostly Republicans. Coastal communities, and a growing portion of the rest of the state, will continue to elect Democrats.

Reform was never intended to end partisanship or to make elected officials more politically centrist. In fact, if communities of interest are properly represented, some districts may send to Sacramento or Washington elected representatives who are even more to the right or left than they are now. Still, we hold out hope — although it may be just wishful thinking and we're not banking on it — that there will be more pragmatism, and more willingness to cross the aisle to make compromises, because there will be less party power to punish independent thought and action. No longer will an Assembly speaker or minority leader be able to extract a vote from a member of his or her party on the threat of redrawing the lines to suit potential opponents a few years down the road.

Reform was never intended to end odd-shaped districts. Yes, one of the criteria is compactness, but when other mandated factors are considered — keeping communities of interest together, respecting the often jagged borders of cities and counties — strange shapes are inevitable. Districts that snake around foothills or along the coast should not necessarily be considered mistakes or the result of corrupt bargains, if they meet the constitutional criteria.

Reform could not even be expected to protect the clout of racial minorities under the Voting Rights Act, if voters of a particular minority are more geographically dispersed, and not as amenable to districts drawn to conserve their power.

It is on that last point that courts may have more to say about the final maps of new congressional, Assembly, state Senate and Board of Equalization districts. Latino voting rights scholars and activists argue that the new districts don't properly reflect the growth of California's Latino population in the past 10 years. African Americans note that black voters may have moved around the state, but have not left it in droves and are unfairly treated by losing much of the ability they currently have to form coalitions that elect representatives.

Legal appeal of these new district lines would go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it may be that the justices will have to determine whether this process shortchanges Latino and black voters. Or even Republicans.

But that's one more thing reform was never intended to do: prevent lawsuits. Embedded in the very political and constitutional nature of redistricting is the likelihood that the final maps will end up in court, whether the lines were drawn by partisans or by reformers. Lawsuits don't mean the process has failed. It had some holes, and there is room for improvement. But its mission has been accomplished. The political parties no longer pick their voters.

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