In a fall election that's looking like a monumental case of information overload, it appears voters will be asked to revisit the issue of independent political redistricting -- as backers of an initiative to add congressional districts to the list say they've collected more than enough signatures for a spot on the November ballot.
The "Voters First Act for Congress" would remove the process of drawing California's congressional districts from the Legislature, handing that power over to the soon-to-be-selected Citizens Redistricting Commission.
You'll recall that the commission, approved by passage of Proposition 11 in 2009, is now being organized through an elaborate process that will whittle down as many as 26,000 applicants into a 14 member commission that will convene next year to draw districts for the Legislature and the state Board of Equalization.A campaign to add Congress to the commission's work places front and center a political fight that Prop 11 carefully avoided. Roll back the clock to late 2007, when legislators and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger were haggling over a redistricting reform proposal -- who would draw the lines? Which lines? How?
The effort seemed doomed if congressional districts were included in the final bill, with powerful Democrats led by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi balking at a California-only version of congressional redistricting reform. In the end, the entire negotiation collapsed in the state Capitol, and government watchdog groups used what was left standing as a template for their own initiative, Prop 11.
Prop 11's placement on the ballot and passage is due, in large part, to Schwarzenegger's political muscle. The issue has been part of his agenda since the 2003 recall election, and until Prop 11 marked one of his biggest setbacks -- with voters rejecting Proposition 77 and its 'let's let retired judges draw districts' plan in 2005.
Assuming that the initiative's backers have collected enough valid signatures (confirmation will take a few weeks from elections officials), actually getting the congressional redistricting measure approved may be an awful lot harder.
For starters, a successful ballot measure campaign is usually expensive. To date, it appears the entire effort to qualify the initiative has been bankrolled by one person: Charles T. Munger, Jr., son of a longtime business partner of financial oracle Warren Buffett. Campaign finance records show Munger has written checks totaling $2.73 million to get the congressional redistricting plan on the ballot -- a plan that, as noted here before, does a little more than its name implies. That may seem like a lot of cash, until you consider that the campaign in support of 2008's Prop 11 spent more than $16 million to get the measure approved... and even then, it only won with a razor-thin 50.9% of the vote.
And that lack of excitement about redistricting may be what opponents are counting on. Their current efforts seem geared not towards an actual opposition campaign, but rather an alternative effort: dismantling the redistricting commission entirely. That effort quietly began just before the end of 2009 with an initiative that would repeal all of Proposition 11's redistricting changes; subsequent news coverage found that the effort is being prodded by U.S. Rep. Howard Berman and his brother, longtime Democratic redistricting expert Michael Berman. That campaign has collected $280,000 from Democrats in the California congressional delegation (and at least one wannabe, former Assembly speaker Karen Bass) to move their measure to the November ballot, too.
And opponents don't need anywhere near the same amount of money, because they have two paths to electoral victory in November.
Think of it this way: should the measure to abolish independent redistricting be approved, then even simultaneous passage of the new 'Voters First' measure would appear to be a moot point, because there would no longer be a citizens commission. But perhaps even more clever, two measures dealing with the still arcane topic of redistricting on the same ballot may confuse voters just enough to result in both measures being defeated -- which would keep congressional map drawing in the hands of the Legislature come 2011.