Understanding the Goals of Redistricting

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The Hapsburg Dynasty... Michael Phelps... and California legislators?

If you're confused, then you haven't been paying attention to Governor Schwarzenegger, the pitch man for Proposition 11 -- this fall's attempt to change the once-a-decade process of redistricting. This is Schwarzenegger's second political campaign to wrest control of political map drawing from the hands of the Legislature.

And maybe this time, the stars are aligned just right; after all, this summer's budget fiasco has only helped drive the Legislature's approval ratings towards their true nadir. It would seem simple enough to say that legislators can't trusted to draw political districts, given the 2001 redistricting deal that let numerous incumbents pick and choose the squiggly outlines of their home turf.

The government watchdog groups that wrote Prop 11 say the problem is that legislators have a conflict of interest in mapping out their own districts.

"Drawing super safe districts for legislators to run in is a very big problem," says Kathay Feng of Common Cause California, one of the authors of Prop 11. "We now have a state government that is no longer responsive to the voters."

But the pitch from the governor is different, with promises from Prop 11 that several redistricting experts say won't happen.

First, the issue of competitive districts. Schwarzenegger has long said that lack of competition between the two parties has helped create gridlock (hence the two references earlier, his joke about monarchy turnover and September's quip about what led swimmer Phelps to all those gold medals).

"There's a lack of competition there between Democrats and Republicans," said Schwarzenegger at an event in San Diego last week. "And we all know that if there is a lack of competition there is also a lack of performance."

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On Tuesday morning's edition of The California Report (listen above), we took a look at a district that's competitive on paper... but so uncompetitive in reality that the Democratic candidate isn't even mentioned in a promotional booklet published by his party. We also checked in with a researcher who's recent report concluded that there's no strong correlation between competitively drawn districts and whether a legislator is actually a moderate open to compromise.

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This morning on the program (listen above), the second part of our examination of redistricting focused on the specifics in Prop 11 -- the way the independent citizens commission would be picked, the concerns about whether it will truly be diverse and accountable, and the very real possibility that California might still end up with legislative districts that are squiggly, contorted shapes... because every criteria given to the new commission can only be applied after rules mandated by the United States Constitution.

"The problem with redistricting is you cannot meet everybody's goal," said Karin McDonald, director of the statewide redistricting database at UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies. "You cannot make everybody happy."

All of this means the voters can undoubtedly shake things up by approving Prop 11 on next week's ballot, but expectations must be realistic. The governor is a great salesman; but if the kinds of cooperation and esprit de corps he's promising will come from redistricting reform doesn't happen when new districts are drawn in 2011... will the voters who approved the new plan feel cheated?

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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