Redistricting Win, Lose, or Draw

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More competition. More moderate politicians. Less sleazy deal making. More good stuff. Less bad stuff.

Like so many electoral efforts, the two campaigns waged in favor of independent redistricting promised a lot of fixes to California voters tired of dysfunctional governance. Soon... very soon, in fact... the voters are going to get their first look at what they bought.

My story on this morning's edition of The California Report is what we sometimes call a "place setter," a overview of the summer that's in store when it comes to the drawing of 177 separate political districts by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

You're forgiven if redistricting has fallen off your radar since last November, when voters added congressional map drawing to the new commission's duties. Since then, the 14 men and women were selected, set up shop, and embarked on a statewide listening tour about how the maps should be drawn.

On June 10, the citizen map drawers will release the first draft proposals and the political world will be watching. Closely. But the truth is, political junkies have been pondering for months already where the lines should go (or will go), analyzing the words and actions of the commissioners while also crafting their own maps, just in case.

For the general public, the draft maps may produce some surprises. Tops on that list: what's not in them. As I reported back in the fall of 2008, Arnold Schwarzenegger mainly sold the original redistricting initiative as a way to create competition in political races and, by extension, more moderates in elected office. Even the language of that initiative outlined factors like compactness, keeping cities and counties from being split into multiple districts, nesting (two Assembly districts per Senate district), and the recently clarified goal of respecting communities of interest.

But it's important to note that these are all goals, not mandates; as the constitutional initiative itself puts it, these factors are used "to the extent practicable." The commission's top priorities must be, due to federal law, equal population and the voting rights of minorities. The latter is especially noteworthy in California, one of only a handful of states whose maps are vetted for legality under a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA).

"There's a lot of suggestion the commission will draw the Voting Rights (affected) districts first, and then draw everything around it," says political consultant Paul Mitchell.

Mitchell has become somewhat of an overnight fanatic about redistricting. He says if those key portions of the state are mapped out first, it will ripple outward to every other part of California; remember, population equality means what you put in one place must be balanced somewhere else. Mitchell subscribes to a theory others I've spoken to also believe -- namely, that the commission will seek to inoculate its maps, first and foremost, against any VRA defects.

"If you're sitting on the commission and you want your work product to stand," he says, "you better practice some really defensive redistricting."

What will be fascinating is how those maps match up, or don't, to the neatly compact districts that many voters think they see in California's future. Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions -- no doubt worsened by superficial news reporting -- is that gerrymandered districts are merely ones that are, well, squiggly. In truth, though, a "gerrymander" is really only a manipulation of data in order to achieve a result that favors someone (or some group) over others. What happens if the new commission draws maps that are fair but still look like Rorschach blobs?

The citizen map drawers also face the challenge of, well, trying to make everyone happy. As they've heard in comments made at public hearings up and down the state over the last two months, there are as many views of how lines should be drawn as their are groups of voters and activists.

"There's definitely areas where we're going to have to reconcile competing testimony," says commissioner Connie Galambos Malloy, "where certain members of the community feel that they have certain things in common and other members might view things differently."

One fascinating area will be how the commission views, and honors, "communities of interest." One veteran redistricting pol says it's a term that's synonymous with politics.

"When people say, 'We want our communities of interest,' that is a political statement," says former state Senate leader Don Perata. "That's not a philosophical statement or a theological statement. It's saying that we want to maintain the power that we derive by commonality of interest. That's politics."

Perata was a key architect to the much criticized maps drawn by the Legislature in 2001 and was a reliable skeptic during intense redistricting reform negotiations at the Capitol in 2006 (negotiations whose demise ultimately led to Prop 11). He may be out of office, but the veteran Democrat hasn't stopped crafting maps. Perata has lined up a group of like-minded power players (ethnic groups, business interests, and others, he says) to present fully drawn statewide maps to the commission. Similar efforts are being orchestrated by Republicans, environmentalists, and a whole host of other political interests; some are complete statewide proposals, others are limited to particular regions.

The commission is taking testimony on these maps this week. While there's no guarantee any of the drawings will be used, backers like Perata hope they will. The interest group maps also provide another point of leverage: should the commission's maps be overturned by referendum or in court, judges would be free to craft replacement maps any way they see fit. Might that include these private maps vetted in public?

But that's still a ways down the road. The commission must certify its maps by August 15, after which time the legal jockeying may begin. Before that, there's going to be an awful lot of hand wringing in state legislative and congressional circles. After all, the CRC maps (not the private ones, by the way) are being drawn with a blind eye to the home bases of incumbent pols. They are also being drawn without any reference to current constituencies -- another worrisome element for elected officials.

Which leads us, as so many things do, back to the beleaguered state budget. The draft maps land in the public square smack dab in the crunch period of budget politics. Legislators now reluctant to make a deal, for example, may suddenly feel their political base shifting. Two incumbents who now have divergent views about budget fixes may suddenly be dumped into the same district, and will then wonder whose view holds sway with the new voter base.

June 10 may be a big day, says Perata, but "everything in the Legislature will change on the 11th."

For politicos, sure. But the more important question is whether it changes anything for the public, whether the voters who ushered in the new redistricting process wake up to see the work product of that process and decide they've helped, or hurt, efforts to combat their state's governance woes.

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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.
  • Paula Lee

    Many of the problems facing the redistricting commission could be solved if they were not restricted to drawing a distict where only ONE person can be elected. Every district becomes a ONE PARTY district so that is why so many voters are and will be unhappy.
    The commission is forced to draw districts that will reflect only ONE political point of view.
    In order to elect more moderates and reflect political points of views that are not extreme red and blue, we need Proportional Representation. A 5 member district will look purple and represent more political points of view and more people really will be ahppy because they will be able to elect a winner. Our ONE party districts leave at least 40% of voters in every district unhappy. Proportional Representation is the next step to end gerrymandering and is the perfect remedy for the Voting Rights Act.

  • Churchlady

    I have a lot of faith in the citizens’ commission. They have no vested interests, will not benefit, and are honorable people. The only issue for them is that populations must be given fair distribution. Perata is wrong when he says “communities of interest” are political. For him, perhaps. For citizens it is a sense of wholeness, neighborhood, common bonds, shared concerns, culture. That is why the commissioners are the perfect people to reflect the interests of other people. Proportional representation is foolhardy – it is the desire of children to “win” a prize even when they don’t win the game. Democracy works, it’s majority vote, and if you are not the “winner” in the birthday games or in elections, grow up. The only issue we should be monitoring is that the integrity of our districts is maintained. From there, vote your conscience and live with the results. That’s what adults do.