Redistricting Redux: Congress

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[Monday, Sept. 7: see below for new comments from initiative's author.]

Seeking to capitalize on California's creation of an independent redsitricting process for legislative and statewide tax agency districts, a new initiative has been filed that would add congressional districts to the mix. And you can bet that's going to spark some fireworks should the measure make it to the ballot.

The measure was filed with the Attorney General's office yesterday by Charles T. Munger, Jr. It essentially makes two changes to 2008's Proposition 11 -- two important changes.

Munger is a Stanford-affiliated researcher whose father is the long time right-hand man of financial oracle Warren Buffett. In 2008, the younger Munger gave $1.25 million to the Prop 11 campaign; the measure -- backed heavily by Governor Schwarzenegger as well as a phalanx of good government groups -- eeked out a win with 50.9% of the vote.

It's unclear whether Munger is willing to bankroll the new effort to the extent he helped Prop 11, or perhaps even more. But at least one source tells me that signature gatherers have been told there's money behind the effort.

And every dollar will be needed. The genesis of Prop 11 was a proposal that was bandied about for a while inside the Legislature. But that proposal's biggest hurdle was the chance it might shake things up in California's congressional delegation -- which is why Congress was excluded. The authors of Prop 11 used that same template in hopes national political dollars wouldn't be spent to defeat it. And the strategy, plus a modest campaign in an otherwise high-octane political season, worked.

But because partisan warriors have so vocally fought the notion of independently drawn congressional districtsin the past, it seems reasonable to assume they'd do so again. Democrats, for example, would no doubt raise red flags about Munger's record of contributions to the California Republican Party and various GOP candidates, including the political efforts of Schwarzenegger.

For the most part, the new initiative simply adds congressional districts to those of the Legislature and state Board of Equalization as part of the workload for the new independent redistricting commission.

But the initiative also contains a substantive change when it comes to what are known as "communities of interest."

The term is often discussed in redistricting circles, and considered to be a way for newly drawn political districts to honor groups of people with common interests -- groups that might not easily line up with the boundaries of cities, counties, or some other existing category. Various states have taken a crack at defining the term, but Prop 11 pretty much left it up to the new redistricting commission to define.

But that changes under this initiative, which would insert the following definition into the state constitution:

A community of interest is a contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation. Examples of such shared interests are those common to an urban area, an industrial area, or an agricultural area, and those common to areas in which the people share similar living standards, use the same transportation facilities, have similar work opportunities, or have access to the same media of communication relevant to the election process.

It's important to note that while the initiative is primarily designed to transfer the power of drawing congressional districts, the new definition of "communities of interest" would apply to the drawing of all districts -- legislative, congressional, and Board of Equalization.

Also worth noting: "communities of interest" is a requirement that the independent commission must consider above things like geographic compactness (i.e., no squiggly snake-like districts) and nesting (where two Assembly districts, for example, might be drawn inside a single Senate district).

As we've reported before, redistricting reform is a favorite topic of government critics, but one which may not always produce the desired result (such as competitive seats). But it might resolve the conflicts of interest that critics point out when lawmakers draw districts to their liking.

The new California commission will be an interesting test of all of this once it convenes in 2011. This initiative would create a modification of the commission's marching orders... and an extra job for the citizens and staff involved.

The initiative has got a long ways to go; it doesn't even yet have formal title and summary, a precursor to being circulated for signatures. Still, there is a chance this could become the third redistricting proposal on the California ballot since 2005. And given the political ramifications of who represents the state in Congress, it could be the most contentious.
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UPDATE: The initiative's auuthor, Charles T. Munger, Jr., responded this past weekend via email about the proposal's attempt to define a 'community of interest.' Munger says the definition is based on what the California Supreme Court used when drawing political boundaries in the past after the work of the Legislature was blocked by legal action.

"The intent is decidedly not to reinvent the wheel on this issue," writes Munger, "rather, to have the commission use that definition that has already been used in California -- twice -- to draw districts generally acknowledged to have been fair."

Munger accurately points out that Prop 11 intended for the new citizens commission to consider 'communities of interest' when crafting political boundaries. He says the new proposal to add congressional maps to the commission's work would make that intent "more certain to be realized."

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia 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. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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