Redistricting:Tempest In The Teapot6 min read

The recent volley of stink bombs directed at the state’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission was bound to come. The only surprise is that it came so quickly and all of it from Republicans: Is the party so worried that in 2012 it will lose the last vestige of power it still has?

To date the commission hasn’t done much of anything except choose its technical expert and (maybe) its Voting Rights Act legal counsel. So why start firing so soon?

The new decennial redistricting process, created by Proposition 11 in November 2008, takes the legal power to draw the lines for California’s congressional, assembly, state senate and Board of Equalization districts out of the hands of the legislature, where it’s always been, and gives it to what’s supposed to be a fiercely impartial commission.

Most people couldn’t care less about redistricting, and for good reason. In the end, given the state’s political geography, its political culture and the requirements of federal law, it probably doesn’t make all that much difference who draws the lines. But for insiders, the complex new system provides no end of opportunities for second guessing, sour grapes and charges of bias.

And since the commissioners – five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents – were chosen in a complicated ritual that, in the words of one observer, was “a strange amalgam of college application essays, voir dire and lottery selection processes” its impartiality was inevitably subject to question.

The system was crafted to appear as non-political (impartial? non-partisan?) as possible. The commissioners were supposed to be as pure as the driven snow, people who hadn’t been engaged in any partisan or lobbying activity for at least a decade, meaning that they were likely to be political innocents. But as the recent attacks indicate, that may always have been a vain hope.

The GOP attacks, including one from Tom Del Beccaro, the new chairman of the state party, raise two possibilities. They could indicate either that the Democrats have fixed this so cleverly that you can only wonder at their clumsiness in so many other things.

Or, more probably, that the GOP is beginning to fear that when the commission’s work is done and the new maps have been drawn late this summer, the safe Republican districts that were created by a bipartisan gerrymander after the 2000 census will be gone. The state’s changing demographics, particularly the growing Latino electorate, make that increasingly likely.

That could bring not only further losses for a party that’s been attracting fewer voters each year and that, come the 2012 election, may no longer have even the one-third-plus-one seats in each house that have given it the only real clout it still possesses — the power to pursue its agenda by blocking tax increases until it got at least some of what it wanted. This spring, oddly enough, when the state budget crisis offered the GOP what may have been its best (and maybe last) chance to do that, the party blew it.

 The most detailed attack – one that will probably interest only the inside-most of insiders – came from Tony Quinn, a long-respected GOP consultant and reapportionment maven. Quinn, in a couple of recent blogs, targets the state auditor who had a role in choosing the commissioners; Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, the huge Los Angeles corporate law firm that was tentatively chosen as the commission’s voting rights act counsel; Karin Mac Donald, who the commission chose as its map-making technician and the process by which she and her firm, Q2 Data, were selected.

The charges include:

(1) That the auditor “quickly came under pressure from racial and ethnic activist groups to assure that the commission was reflective of the state’s population and its racial diversity.”  But that’s part of what the Proposition 11 and federal law require.

(2) That the commission is so stacked with partisan Democrats, weak Republicans and “ethnic activists” that it’s “obviously biased and dishonest.”

(3) That some Gibson, Dunn lawyers lobby and that some have contributed to Democrats. But Gibson, Dunn lawyers have also contributed to, and worked for, Republicans. A Gibson, Dunn senior partner was Ronald Reagan’s first attorney general.

 (4) That Mac Donald, through her professional association with Bruce Cain, the University of California political scientist who now heads UC’s Washington Center, is a closet Democrat who’ll jigger the maps to favor the left. Quinn cites as an example of Cain’s Democratic tilt his testimony in defense of the 2001 bi-partisan gerrymander that was designed to protect incumbents. But that plan was the work of both parties and was approved by the Bush White House. (Full disclosure: I’m a visiting scholar at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, which Cain once headed).

Mac Donald, who directs the UC-based Statewide Database, is probably a liberal. But she has never belonged to any political party, is regarded as a consummate professional and since Cain has carefully removed himself from the process the charge is at best a stretch. If you want expertise, there’s no avoiding people who worked for somebody before. 

Generally unknown, moreover, is that Arizona’s redistricting in 2002, cited by many reformers as a model, was the work of a special master under a three-judge panel. That master was Cain. In any case, it’s the commission that must approve the maps – and/or the judges that will hear the almost certain legal challenges that will follow.

But where Quinn goes wildly off is in his assumption that Proposition 11 aimed at creating competitive districts. The measure says nothing about competitive districts — though that they may have been the hope of some reformers. On the contrary, it specifically prohibits political considerations in drawing districts.

The law’s prime objectives are the creation of districts of roughly equal size; geographical compactness and the preservation wherever possible of community integrity and compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, meaning non discrimination against ethnic or racial groups.

But don’t underestimate the effect of the attacks. Since approval of any plan requires the votes of nine commissioners – three from each of the three party blocs – they increase the chances that the commission will never agree. And if a plan is approved, it will most likely be challenged in the courts. That means judges will have the last word in either case. These are the first shots in a legal case that may last for years. 

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.