Willie Brown made it clear. Speaking in Denver two weeks ago, the former Assembly speaker told California Democrats gathered for the party's national convention that they were duty-bound to keep their most important power -- drawing legislative district lines. Defeating Proposition 11, Brown said, was almost as crucial as making sure Barack Obama was elected president, because whoever draws the lines decides who gets elected.
Brown could hardly have made the case in favor of Proposition 11 better if he'd tried. California gives political parties, rather than voters, enormous and unwarranted power over who gets elected to office now, two years down the road and another two to four years beyond that. That power comes in the form of "decennial redistricting," two snooze-inducing words that stand for the ultimate king-making clout, currently vested in the Legislature and, by extension, the parties. State Democratic Party leaders use it to retain their margin in Sacramento, and both they and their Republican counterparts use it to plot the courses and careers of individual candidates. Raise enough money for us, they tell would-be politicians, and we'll draw an Assembly district for you now and perhaps a Senate district that you can slide into when your term expires. Cross us, and we'll draw a district that will never elect you.
Voters are supposed to choose their representatives, but in California, political parties select their voters. That kind of power is destructive and inherently anti-democratic. It must end, and Proposition 11 will help end it.
Political campaigns don't lend themselves to nuance, so any criticism of a ballot measure like this one tends to be offered as proof positive that the language is flawed and that passage would be disastrous. Arguments in support often suggest that the measure will cure every structural problem ailing the state.
Let's be clear: Proposition 11 will not, by itself, sweep the state clean of hyper-partisanship. A Public Policy Institute of California report issued this week reported little evidence that redistricting reform, in subjecting incumbents to serious election challenges, would make lawmakers more moderate.
But the question for voters is not whether this measure would do everything its supporters want, or whether it is the best possible redistricting reform. The question is whether Proposition 11 would give California a system better than the status quo. It would.
It would create a 14-member legislative redistricting commission made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four others. They would use 2010 Census data and information offered at public hearings to draw maps that create 80 Assembly, 40 Senate and five Board of Equalization districts. They would take effect in time for the 2012 state elections.
The commissioners would be chosen using a complex selection process, the result of months of negotiations meant to assure as evenhanded a panel as possible. Regrettably, there is still too much participation by the political parties, but it's a great improvement over the present parties-only system. No longer would Democrats and Republicans be able, with a handshake on a golf course, to trade "safe" districts. Political districts would no longer be part of the bargaining process over campaign fundraising or bill language.
Supporters of some plans that didn't make it on the ballot or were rejected in Sacramento are opposing Proposition 11 because they believe it accomplishes less than their proposals would. For example, congressional district lines would be drawn the old-fashioned way, by the parties, in part because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to permit any change that would divest Democrats of their hard-won majority. That omission has led some Republicans to oppose the measure, but that's a foolish move. Rejecting the initiative because it's a small real step instead of a giant imaginary leap makes no sense, especially when it's based on the specious hope that the Legislature will overcome its revulsion for redistricting reform and pass some perfect plan in the next session.
By the same token, it would be foolish for Democrats to oppose the measure out of a belief that it would cost their party its majority in Sacramento. It won't. For every district it puts in play that currently elects Democrats, it is just as likely to put in play a district that currently elects Republicans. It would simply ensure that legislative Democrats (and Republicans) would heed voters and not just party bosses.
Some advocates for Latino, Asian and African American voters have weighed in against Proposition 11, arguing that there is no guarantee that their interests would be represented on the commission or that they wouldn't lose ground in the Legislature. What they are really saying is that they have figured out how to make the corrupt party duopoly work for them. But they need not be afraid of a fair system.
The Times generally frowns on ballot measures that strip lawmakers of their authority (and duty), but in the case of redistricting, the Legislature has shown repeatedly its unwillingness or to loosen its grip on this power, which is a clear conflict of interest. This reform is one voters need to make.
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