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The Power Of Lines

Jessika Walsten |
June 14, 2010 | 1:58 p.m. PDT

Associate News Editor

Chambers for the California State Legislature. The Citizen's Redistricting
Commission currently draws the state legislature's boundaries. But that could
change. (Creative Commons)

As early as the 1970s, Bob Stern did not like the way California drew its lines.

Stern served as a staff member on the California State Assembly's Committee on Elections and Redistricting in 1971, sitting in on meetings and listening to members of the state legislature plead with the committee to draw their districts a certain way.

"Legislators would come in and say make sure you draw my district so my mother is in the district," said Stern, who is now the president of the Center for Governmental Studies. "Make sure you draw the district so my opponent is outside my district. Make sure you draw the district so that my major contributor is inside the district."

That experience taught Stern one thing.

"I came to the conclusion after sitting in on those meetings that anyone but the legislature should be doing redistricting," he said.

Every 10 years, California, along with the other U.S. states, reassesses the district boundaries for the Board of Equalization, an agency that governs fee collection and taxes, the state assembly and senate, and Congress. The boundaries determine who represents each Californian in the state legislature and U.S. Senate.

Who should draw those boundaries has been debated for years. Some legislators have been accused of gerrymandering, distorting the boundaries of their district to protect themselves in future elections. Because of gerrymandering, some people feel as Bob Stern does that legislators should not have the power to draw their own districts.

Boundaries are redrawn based on population and household information from national census data, and the next redistricting is slated to begin in 2012, according to the California State Auditor's webpage for the Citizens Redistricting Commission.

However, even before all of the data is collected from the 2010 census, the question as to who gets to draw the redistricting lines in 2012 remains unanswered.

Prop 11 Screen Shot
Want to read Proposition 11? Here is a pdf version of the initiative.

In November 2008, California voters narrowly approved Proposition 11, an initiative that created the Citizens Redistricting Commission, which puts the power of redistricting into the hands of Californians as opposed to the legislature, which has traditionally been the body in charge of redistricting.

But one initiative vying for a spot on this November's ballot seeks to repeal the proposition and restore the power to redistrict to the legislature.

"It [redistricting] is political and the right way to resolve that is through a political process," said Daniel Lowenstein, one of the main proponents of the Financial Accountability in Redistricting Act (FAIR) and a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In addition to eliminating the Citizens Redistricting Commission, FAIR also includes a number of reforms, said Lowenstein. The act proposes spending regulations, encourages an open and public redistricting process, and safeguards population equality within each district, he added.

Even though many opponents of FAIR would agree with reforms such as population equality and public redistricting, they would not agree with the elimination of the commission.

"We have to fundamentally change who holds the power of the pen from a legislative body to some other body," said Kathay Feng, executive director of Common Cause and one of Proposition 11's proponents.

Feng became disillusioned with the redistricting process after the 2000 census. In 2001, she worked with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center to organize communities to look at district maps. After observing the redistricting hearings held by the legislature, she realized the real negotiation did not occur in the public eye. The real negotiation happened behind the scenes, she said.

"I walked away from that whole process realizing the system is flawed," said Feng.

Her realization led her to get involved with redistricting reform.

During the drafting of Proposition 11, those involved looked at different ways to shift the power, such as involving judges or county officials.  But they eventually decided on giving that power to a commission of 14 California voters, said Feng. Once the panel is chosen, it will consist of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four members not associated with either party.

To complicate things further, another initiative is fighting for a spot on the November ballot. But unlike the FAIR act, this initiative seeks to add power to Proposition 11.

Under Proposition 11's current provisions, the Citizens Redistricting Commission has the power to redraw the lines for the California Board of Equalization and the state legislature. The power to redistrict U.S. Congressional lines remains with the state legislature, however.

The California Congressional Redistricting Initiative (CCRI) proposes to give the commission the power to redraw U.S. Congressional lines as well.

Lowenstein said the FAIR act was largely a reaction to the CCRI.

While both the CCRI and FAIR have gathered enough signatures for consideration on the November ballot, FAIR still awaits signature verification by the California Secretary of State. The CCRI received verification of its collected signatures in May.

In the meantime, the provisions for Proposition 11 have already begun. The lengthy application process to get a spot on the Citizens Redistricting Commission started in February.

Stern was one of more than 30,000 people to apply for a place on the commission.

"I applied because I wanted to actually go through the process . . . to see what it was like," said Stern.

But even if a person makes it through the lengthy application process, until FAIR is voted up or down, there's no guarantee that the commission will be there.

So, at this point, no one really knows who will get to draw the lines.

"I think most people can sense this is not that important," said Lowenstein.

Yet, many people like Stern and Feng feel that the power to redistrict is of fundamental importance. What the voters think about the issue remains to be seen.

Breakdown of Redistricting Initiatives in California

California Proposition 11 - Voters FIRST Act
  • Approved by voters in November 2008 election.
  • Created Citizens Redistricting Commission in California.
  • Gives power to redraw district lines for the California State Legislature and the Board of Equalization to voters.
  • Takes the power to redraw those lines away from the legislators.
  • However, the power to redraw California's Congressional lines remains with state legislators.
California Financial Accountability in Redistricting Act
  • May appear on November 2010 general election ballot.
  • If appears on ballot and passeds, Citizens Redistricting Commission would be eliminated.
  • Would give the power to redraw the lines for the California State Legislature and the Board of Equalization back to the state legislature if passes.
California Congressional Redistricting Initiative
  • May appear on November 2010 general election ballot.
  • If appears on ballot and passes, would extend scope of the Citizens Redistricting Commission, giving the commission the power to redraw California's Congressional lines.



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