Three Cheers for Redistricting

One important step in reducing the hyperpartisanship

Back Commentary Jun 30, 2011 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

This month, California voters finally have something to celebrate — a redistricting plan that moves us a small step forward on the long journey to change the state’s dysfunctional political system.

Ho-hum, some could say. But let’s recall where we started in 2001: contorted voting districts drawn by legislators to protect legislators. So self-serving were these districts that only seven seats changed party hands during more than 600 races in four general election cycles.

Finally, voters were outraged enough to pass two good-government initiatives — propositions 11 and 20 — that took control away from legislators. Now, every 10 years, when we have a new U.S. Census, an independent commission will adjust district boundaries to make them equal in population and in sync with laws protecting minority-voting rights. The commission will draw the district maps for the state Senate and Assembly, the Board of Equalization and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Legislators and other government types were against it. They decried the inexperience of a citizens’ commission, complained that members weren’t accountable to voters, said they’d never agree and predicted the entire process would become so fraught with controversy that the courts would end up drawing new maps.

I admit I’m normally no fan of governing by initiatives. But in this case direct democracy worked well. The vetting process to choose commission members was thorough and fair, producing a politically balanced group of 14 individuals chosen for their impartiality and skills and reflecting our state’s demographic and geographic diversity.

The commission did just what it was asked to do — and, based on their past record, far better than our supposedly accountable elected representatives would have done. The five Democrats, five Republicans and four nonpartisan individuals put aside ideological differences and listened to hundreds of citizen emails and the 1,500 citizens who testified during 11 hearings.

This month, the commission is getting more reactions during a second and third round of hearings on its draft maps, which, by the way, were released early, two months before the commission’s mid-August deadline, so there would be plenty of time for comment.

This is not to say the process has been easy or without controversy, partly because the requirements for mapping are complicated and demanding. In addition to having equal populations, districts should be compact and follow common-sense geographic boundaries, ignore partisan considerations and balance various communities of interest.

Meeting all those requirements is no easy task, so there were bound to be differences of opinion, as there have been. Sacramento argues that it shouldn’t be split between districts, Davis doesn’t want to be joined with Sacramento, Winters protests being linked to Davis … the debate goes on, as it should.

But the commission has done an honest and thorough job of carrying out its mission and in the process has produced a draft plan that does, in fact, promote greater competition within districts. Right now it looks like we could see real races in seven more elections for state Assembly, four for the Senate and five for U.S. House of Representatives.

Redistricting is no panacea, but it is one important step in reducing the hyperpartisanship that has kept our state in gridlock for all too long. The commission’s work is clearly a step toward better government and should serve as a model for our cities and counties as they produce their own redistricting maps.

The commission deserves our thanks — as do all those Californians adding their voices to redistricting reform.

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