DEMOCRACY IS COMING TO CALIFORNIA: Proposition 11 would end a party-safe system that allows incumbents to hold onto their districts over 90 percent of the time.
Prop 11 would end a system that lets lawmakers make up their own legislative districts
By Paul Wagner
LET'S SAY, just for fun, that you're a family of six that craves permanent power over a town of 12. Only problem: townies—even those undeserving people from those other (and highly suspect) families—actually get to vote. What could you do? Well, you could always try getting Junior appointed election clerk and doing an erase-and-replace on the ballots. Or make sure that Sis, who's always down with a cold, slobbers all over those other people so they're too sick to get to the polls. Those, though, have possible legal consequences.
Besides, there's a much easier and perfectly legal way to guarantee your topdoggedness: split the town into three "districts." Put three of your peeps and one of that other bunch in the first two. Put the four leftover folks in the third. Voilą—you own two districts; they own one. You rule! Forever!
All this would be great sitcom yuks were it not exactly what the state Legislature has done for nearly 100 years: give its members perma-power by regularly divvying up the state into odd-shaped legislative districts guaranteed to keep power in the hands of whatever party rules at the time.
And soon after voters, tired of the endless antics, slapped term limits on state officeholders in 2000, legislators concocted the most corrupt version of this scam to date, a version so transparent that the Assembly speaker himself openly praised it right on the chamber floor as an "incumbent protection program."
The deal: Democrats and Republicans banded together in 2001 to carve out districts so safe that virtually every member could count on re-election no matter what the public mood.
"In the current system, legislators select their voters," says former Assemblymember Fred Keeley. He should know.
Keeley, who is from Boulder Creek, first ran for the Assembly in 1996, won and was re-elected by good margins in 1998 and 2000, at the end of which he termed out. He next planned to run for state Senate, but something odd happened. His longstanding local Monterey Bay Senate district, thanks to that incumbent protection program, got sliced into several long slithery districts reaching over to Palo Alto, down along the Central Coast, and wiggling inward at odd places.
"Redistricting made sure no one from our counties could win," notes Keeley. What might have become Keeley's district now belongs the estimable Palo Alto–based Joe Simitian to the north, agri-mogul Abe Maldonado to the south and perpetual budget-blocker Jeff Denham to the east.
That's just one reason Keeley's jumped aboard a statewide campaign to end this once and for all, and change redistricting procedure so that rather than legislators choosing their voters, "voters select their legislators."
Tenth Time's The Charm
The tool of change: state Proposition 11, the Voters First Act, which sets up an entirely new way of drawing district lines. Unlike Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposal of 2005, which turned redistricting over to three retired judges, Prop. 11 employs a far more transparent system. Any voter can apply to serve, winners are picked by lottery, legislators get to toss out a few members they spot as partisan, and the surviving commissioners, likely to be fairly mild personalities, pick the rest of the team. Then the 14 members go to work with the latest census data and start, in meetings open to the public, redrawing the maps. And this repeats every 10 years.
This, says Keeley, provides two benefits. "First, it removes the conflict of interest in the current system, which over time produces districts that are safer and safer and safer." With no need to appeal to voters of the opposite party, candidates wind up "more beholden to the far edges of their parties." Can you spell "gridlock?" Yes, you can: party-safe districts.
Keeley says a new system would also provide "a critical exercise in democracy every 10 years," in that voters will get to observe highly public discussion (as opposed to the current closed-door remappings) on what population changes and demographic shifts have done to redefine the state's many "communities of interest."
Democratic and GOP party leaders, of course, are not at all happy about this proposition. Both parties are already losing members (in 1991, 54 percent of registered voters identified with one or the other; that's down to the low 40s). Pile on term limits and now redistricting, and state officeholders—now re-elected at a rate of over 90 percent—might actually begin to lose.
Uber-Repub Ted Costa, for example—initiator of the Gray Davis recall—huffily dismisses the prop's call for a "so-called Citizens Redistricting Commission." And when Roy Ulrich, a member of Progressive Democrats of L.A., wrote a recent California Progress Report op-ed supporting Prop. 11, another PDLA member launched a counterattack dissing Ulrich as a deceitful mole dispatched by the apparently dangerous good-government group Common Cause, and demanded to know, "Why did he choose to conceal his true allegiance?" Whoa. Spooky! But there are several good reasons Prop. 11 might just, unlike the previous nine redistricting ballot measures voters have rejected, succeed.
For one thing, many past redistricting props were proposed by just one political party for its own purposes, rather than propelled by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, as is Prop. 11. For another, the one or more initiatives appearing on state ballots, and voted down, in 1930, 1948, 1960, 1962, 1982, 1984, 1990 and 2005, were all even more "insider:" they assigned redistricting tasks to retired judges, legislative leaders or complex sets of appointed reviewers.
There's another factor operating on Prop. 11's behalf, too: a statewide organization called California Forward, initiated by the moderate eminence Leon Panetta (Keeley sits on the board). Panetta and his co-founders, in turn, got backing from the nonpartisan Commonwealth Club and Common Cause, as well as the New California Network. And, soon, funding from the Hewlett, Irvine and Packard foundations.
Prop. 11 redistricting isn't California Forward's only project; the group looks to reform budgeting and decision processes, too. But while "there is no single reform," Keeley observes, that will fix the entire breakdown in state governance, fair redistricting will produce at least one of the tools.
Besides, it may help turn around a deeper problem: voters' increasingly resigned discontent with state government. Says Keeley, "We should have, and expect, something far better."
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