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Drawing battle lines in California: Who will be in charge of redistricting?

Battle over gerrymandering: Competing California ballot measures give voters a chance to strengthen, or reject, the redistricting reform they began two years ago.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / October 19, 2010

Los Angeles

Question: What do you call an amoeba with a pseudopod the length of a giraffe’s neck?

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Answer: A gerrymandered district.

If you thought that’s a bad joke, you’d be right, but not as bad a joke as some people – including political experts – say real-life gerrymandering is. That is drawing congressional districts in the strangest shapes imaginable to purposely include or exclude households loyal to different parties with the motive of keeping your own party in power.

One extreme here in California is the 23d Congressional District, known as the “Ribbon of Shame” because it stretches more than 200 miles and narrows in places to 100 yards wide. Extreme examples elsewhere include two districts in Illinois, one nicknamed “Pair of Headphones” and the other “Rabbit on Skateboard” for the Rorschach-inkblot absurdities that result from gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering's ills

But oddly shaped districts aren’t the only problem. Experts say gerrymandering is one of the biggest reasons for political gridlock in America; fault it for producing complacent politicians who lack the finely honed skills obtained from confronting real opposition; and see it as a factor in the political disenfranchisement that gave rise to the “tea party” movement.

“Gerrymandering is politicians picking their voters rather than voters picking their politicians,” says Lara Brown, author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency” and an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Ms. Brown points out that more than 300 seats – the vast majority – in the US House of Representatives, are not even considered competitive. This, she says, allows both parties to govern from the middle of their ideological base. For Republicans that means southern conservatism, and for Democrats it means East- and West-coast liberalism.

“The US House is supposed to represent the public mood, but it does not, it represents each party’s mood,” she says.

Gerrymandering is an issue now because every state in America redraws its district lines next year based on this year’s US Census figures.

And on Nov. 2, California voters will decide how or whether to move ahead on redistricting reform that began here in 2008 with the narrow passage of Proposition 11. An amendment to the California Constitution, Prop. 11 authorized the creation of a 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which took over the state Legislature’s responsibility for drawing state voting districts.