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California redistricting: Don't expect any magic

Op-Ed

'Bold' reforms are rarely immune to the law of unintended consequences, and California's redistricting change is no exception.

  • Districts were assigned names for the first draft of the maps. The customary numbers normally used to identify districts will not be assigned until the the second set of maps is released. (Allan James Vestal, Thomas Suh Lauder, Sandra Poindexter and Ben Welsh) Click for interactive graphic: Has your district been redrawn?
Districts were assigned names for the first draft of the maps. The customary…
June 14, 2011|By Peter Schrag

If California's new political redistricting process accomplishes nothing else, it's already made a lot of incumbents edgy. Who can complain about that?

Moreover, if the preliminary maps for legislative, congressional and State Board of Equalization districts released Friday drive a few California politicians away from the ideological fringes, it might even get us a deal on taxes and a budget that's more than smoke and mirrors.

But don't expect any magic. "Bold" reforms are rarely immune to the law of unintended consequences, and our redistricting change is no exception. Only one thing is almost certain: Spending in the election of 2012 will break all previous records, and redistricting will be part of the reason.

For the first time in history, thanks to a ballot initiative establishing a California Citizens Redistricting Commission, the maps creating legislative districts won't be drawn by pols. Legislators can no longer pick their voters, as the critics always complained, rather than the voters picking their legislators

That sounds nice — "a win for democracy" as one of the 14 commissioners said the other day — especially if you don't like politics. But the new scheme, approved by voters as Proposition 11 in 2008, is built on a tricky contradiction. Anyone who's watched any of the commission's 23 hearings in the last couple of months, or listened to some of the 1,500-plus earnest Californians who've appeared before the panel, must sense it.

Under Proposition 11 and the federal Voting Rights Act, districts must be compact, of roughly equal population, "must respect the boundaries of cities, counties, neighborhoods and communities of interest," and must be drawn "to ensure that minorities have an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice."

And that's the message the panel heard again and again in the two-minute presentations allowed each speaker at those hearings and in the thousands of faxes and emails it received:

Keep our community intact; don't lump Lancaster and Palmdale in with the Santa Clarita Valley; keep Chinatown together; don't stick Marin and Sonoma counties in with the aliens in San Francisco ("they're worlds apart"); keep La Crescenta whole; stop chopping up Sonoma County ("it's just not fair)"; keep our neighborhood together; we are communities of similar people, ethnicities and interests.

There were thousands of messages like them, all variations on the same theme: Keep us segregated. But wasn't the reformers' ideal the creation of politically competitive districts where candidates, rather than catering to partisan extremes, had to seek out the happy middle ground? Isn't the great American ideal economic and ethnic assimilation?

How will representatives voicing the interests — economic, geographic, racial and social — of contending communities and groups be any more able to compromise with competing interests? As University of California political scientist Bruce Cain has often reminded us, increasingly we sort ourselves out geographically; we move to places with people who tend to be just like us.

It's true, as the reformers argue, that one major objective is empowerment of groups and communities that the self-serving maps drawn by politicians often sacrificed to the protection of incumbents and the maintenance of safe seats for each party.

But an equally important hope was that more competitive districts would be created, and that this in turn might lead to more moderate candidates because they would have to appeal to a broader cross-section of voters. This was always more a hope than a certainty, though, because under Proposition 11 the commission is not permitted to look at party membership. So, though it might be geographically possible to create politically competitive districts, the commission is blinded by the law from trying.

There will, of course, be one or two more competitive districts in the state Senate and Assembly, and maybe a couple in the House — that's almost a no-brainer after the safe seats that were created by the parties in 2001 to protect their candidates — but not nearly as many as the reformers hoped for.

After the maps are revised and finalized by the commission in August some veterans, Democrats and Republicans, will be sitting on two-legged stools or jockeying against a friend or colleague in games of musical chairs.

But that may not always be an unmitigated blessing. The unsafe seats in those new districts will require even more campaign cash — meaning special interest money — to win.

With the growth of the Latino population — up about 3 million since 2000 — and the shrinking GOP registration, there'll probably be one or two more Democratic seats both in Sacramento and in Washington. At the same time, a lot of people, Latinos most prominently, are already complaining that they, or their town, or their group didn't get the voice they deserve.

Maybe the new districts will foster more citizen participation, as some of the commissioners confidently predicted last week, and end the belief that "the fix is in." Maybe we'll get beyond hyper-partisanship, maybe we'll get compromise. But don't bet on it. At least in the bad old days, we had one less thing to fight about.

Peter Schrag's most recent book, "Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America," has just been issued in paperback by the University of California Press.

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