Anatomy of a Mapping Meltdown

California's district maps needed to be reformed in the worst way.

Unfortunately, they were.

The last redistricting, done in 2001 by the state legislature, produced safe, incumbent-friendly districts.

Legislators from both major parties cut a deal that, critics argued, allowed lawmakers to choose their voters, rather than the other way around.

After securing safe seats, there was little for incumbents to fear other than primary elections challenges from their parties’ radical extremes.

To stave off potential threats, Republican lawmakers dug in on the right. Democrats tacked left-of-center. The result was legislative gridlock.

A coalition of so-called “goo-goos”—good government interest groups bent on up-ending the Golden State’s dysfunctional government—championed ballot measures that took line-drawing out of the hands of politicians altogether and gave it to a new Citizens’ Redistricting Commission.

The aim was to exorcise “politics” from the redistricting process and create a “fair,” and competitive plan.

The law requires Commission members to be virtually devoid of politics, too. (Actually, it seemed that anyone who ever accidently rode in an elevator with a politician was disqualified from serving.)

The majority of the staff are also redistricting virgins.

But politics—in the best sense of reaching effective compromise—is what you have to do to achieve public policy. And that requires an understanding that “fair” redistricting is in the eyes of many different beholders.

That’s what appears to have the commission stymied.

There’s an inherent tension between the creation of “competitive” districts and satisfying the needs and wants of a plethora of geographic, ethnic, social and economic interests and diverse communities.

The outcry that followed the Commission’s first draft of new district lines seemed to knock the new approach off-kilter.

Latino leaders demanded more districts, to reflect their increasing demographic and political clout (not to mention the mandate of the federal Voting Rights Act).

Their cries of “Foul!” were echoed by Republicans worried that, because of the state’s changing demographics, their new districts will include dangerously high numbers of Latinos—not a GOP-friendly voter group.

African-American activists decried proposed boundaries that could lead to fewer black lawmakers. L.A.’s Westside is reeling from the possible loss of at least one of the most powerful Jewish-Americans in Congress.

And with a higher number of “competitive” races and incumbents at risk, campaigns are likely to be even more costly and dependent on special interest money (or personal wealth) for funding.

With political, legal and time pressures mounting on the rookie commission, much is being read into their decision not to release to the public their second round of draft maps. Final lines are due to be released on or before August 1, for adoption on August 15th.

Ironically, the law allows any group unhappy with the Commission’s plans to launch a referendum.

If qualified, it’ll go immediately to the Supreme Court, which could handle the line-drawing itself—relieving the “Citizen’s Commission” of the job the voters gave it.

The moral of this story?

Beware not only of the unintended consequences of reform; sometimes the intended consequences don’t work so well either. 

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