State desperately needs redistricting reform
The other day, a colleague asked me about redistricting reform in California. He had three questions. Why do we need it, how do we do it, and why now?
We need to fix how legislative boundaries are drawn in California for a few simple reasons. One reason is that today's districts do not respect local communities, but instead our state is carved into bizarre districts whose primary purpose is to reelect incumbents.
Consider our local 44th Assembly District. If you haven't seen a map of this district, think of a boot with a high heel and long, thin and curvy toe. The heel stretches down to Glassell Park, over to South Pasadena. The sole runs east along the Foothill (210)Freeway dropping down to Temple City and North El Monte, while the thin toe runs northeast up to Duarte. The district skips Sierra Madre and Monrovia, but picks up a big chunk of territory north of Altadena and La Ca ada, where few people live.
Why are oddly shaped districts like this a problem? Because these districts were drawn to pack enough voters from one party into each district to guarantee that one party will control the district, not to have districts that represent communities and shared interests. This makes elections predictable for politicians, but prevents voters from making real choices.
Even worse, politically drawn districts do not insure that the voters who live in these districts are well represented in Sacramento or Washington. Pacing disparate communities into oddly shaped districts makes the daily job of representatives difficult, as they have to juggle requests and needs of constituents from vastly different communities.
Compare two cities - different cities - in AD44, South Pasadena and Duarte. In South Pasadena, recent hot issues include mitigation of Gold Line noise, the 710Freeway extension, and their public school district. In Duarte, recent concerns center around Gold Line extension, Vulcan mining dust and local air quality, and the preservation of open space in the foothills. No doubt, these are different communities, with different problems, and different needs from state and federal government.
Today, instead of voters picking the right politician to deal with their community's problems, our existing redistricting process lets legislators pick their voters, because the state Legislature (working with the interests of their party's Washington delegation in mind) now draws and approves the district lines. If you imagine a process where legislators and their staff huddle around high-speed computers analyzing how dozens of different district plans will affect their re-election odds, you are not far from the mark.
That's why we need redistricting reform. Communities need to be brought back together so that their interests can be more effectively represented in Sacramento and Washington. Voters should pick their legislators (not the other way around), to guarantee that representatives know who is in charge.
But how do we do it? After all, didn't California voters just resoundingly defeat redistricting reform in the recent special election?
Indeed when put to the voters last fall, Proposition77 failed miserably, for two reasons. First, it would have forced redistricting in 2006, instead of waiting until after the next census in 2010. Second, it would have put redistricting into the hands of a small group of retired judges. The bottom line was that most voters perceived Proposition77 for what it was, a poor attempt at reform, and a potential partisan power-grab by Republicans.
The good news is that there are better redistricting reform proposals now circulating, including a reasonable proposal from state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, whose Senate proposal SCA3 would give the power to draw district lines to a five-member panel. Two members would be Democrats, two would be Republicans, and the fifth would be a third party or nonpartisan representative.
This proposal is far from perfect, and there are a number of groups working to improve it, especially by increasing the number of redistricting panelists, by insuring that the panel represents the diversity of California, and by making sure that the panel follows a set of concrete principles when it draws new district lines after the 2010 census.
The good news is that Lowenthal is listening to these suggestions. It's also good to hear that the legislative leadership is open to pushing this legislation forward quickly, hopefully so that redistricting reform can be put to voters on the June primary ballot, though that would have to be done through a special supplemental ballot.
The time for reform is now. There is widespread agreement across the state that we need to fix our redistricting process. Political leaders in Sacramento have promised to fix redistricting, and we need to hold them to their promise. If we fix the redistricting process now, there is plenty of time for everyone to figure out how to make it work correctly after the 2010 census.
The clock is ticking, and if we don't see real progress by June, let's throw out these rascals in November.