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.

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

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.

On the ballot this year are two competing measures: Prop. 20 would expand Prop. 11 by empowering the citizens commission to reapportion US Congressional districts as well, while Prop. 27 would eliminate the commission altogether, returning authority for drawing state legislative district lines to the Legislature. If both measures were to pass, whichever measure got the most votes would win.

National impact

The result could reverberate from coast to coast, say experts.

“If California votes to add Congress to the responsibilities of its Redistricting Commission, then it is likely that other states will follow its lead,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “In fact, if enough states have independent commissions, it is possible that Congress could pass legislation requiring all states to have independent commissions to draw Congressional lines in 2021.”

Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento, says, “Adding congressional districts to the newly formed redistricting commission would go a long way to making California elections fair in representing real communities in California.”

Villanova’s Brown says that California redistricting reform would be an “alarm clock, waking up other parts of the country.”

“Many people feel like politics is rigged and rigged by the parties, and it’s hard to say they are necessarily wrong when you look at gerrymandering practices,” she says.

No major polls have been conducted to show where voters stand, but “Yes on 20” officials express confidence, saying the passage of Prop. 11 two years ago after previous failures is evidence of a trend in voters’ sentiments.

“Voters already approved an independent commission in 2008 and now we are just asking them to add Congressional districts so we can hold all our officials accountable,” says Susan Shafer, spokeswoman for “Yes on 20/No on 27.” “We think they’ve already sent a signal that they don’t want to return to the days when politicians chose their districts and those of their friends.”

The Center for Governmental Studies’ Mr. Stern disagrees, pointing both to firmly-entrenched political forces that will dig in their heels and to voters’ current penchants.

“California Congressmembers will be quaking in their boots if Prop. 20 passes because the new commission will not be taking seniority into account when drawing the lines in 2011,” he says. If the measure passes, he says, “2012 will be much more competitive than past elections, and it is entirely possible that some members will not have seats from which to run or be placed together in the same district.”

But this does not mean he thinks the opposing measure will pass, either.

“I expect both Prop. 20 and 27 to be defeated," he says, "since California voters are in a very negative mood.”

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