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Two Lumps and a String

When the California Legislature redraws the lines of legislative districts after each census, the state Constitution demands that “the geographical integrity of any city, county or city and county, or of any geographical region shall be respected to the extent possible.” In other words, districts should be “compact.”

California’s adherence to this constitutional rule is laughable. Look at the 14th State Senate District, as drafted in 2001. As the incumbent, Republican Chuck Poochigian of Fresno, described it in a newspaper column, the Central Valley district contains all or parts of six counties. “However, the lines carefully remove portions of Fresno and skirt around the more populous areas of Modesto, Manteca, Tracy and Stockton.” This was done to excise Democratic voters from the district to make it a safe Republican seat. The California Target Book, an authoritative guide to state elections, said, “The redistricting mapmakers kept the incumbent’s home base of Fresno, but little else when creating the new seat.”

Another constitutional requirement is that districts must be contiguous -- no lump of district here, another over there, separated by another district. The 46th Congressional District is a good example of creatively skirting this rule. The district stretches along the coast from Palos Verdes Estates nearly to Newport Beach in Orange County. Essentially, there are two lumps connected in the middle by a string of coast that picks up as little of Long Beach as possible. Tony Quinn, a longtime redistricting expert and coauthor of the Target Book, says the common joke is that the 46th “is only contiguous at low tide.”

These two districts are hardly rarities among California’s Assembly, state Senate and congressional districts. Poochigian’s even looks “compact” compared with others. Such districts were drawn this way by incumbent legislators to protect themselves, to assure that Democrats will be elected in some districts and Republicans in others. The people might like politicians to get along with their opponents, but not in divvying up the spoils. The drawing of crooked district lines by lawmakers is the ultimate conflict of interest, one that needs to end. An independent commission should draw the lines, not the Legislature itself. Poochigian, although he was not badly treated by the flawed system, is the author of one of several proposed constitutional amendments to create such an independent redistricting commission, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is also championing.

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Drawing crooked district lines, a long-standing political tradition, has become more sophisticated in recent years, thanks to the availability of computer mapping software. What was particularly unusual about California’s 2001 redistricting was that Republicans and Democrats teamed up to protect virtually all the seats of both parties. Usually, the majority party -- the Democrats in this state -- uses its power to its own advantage, crafting as many majority-party seats as possible and leaving only a few truly competitive seats.

The effort worked so well that neither party lost a seat in the 2004 election. In a universe of 153 districts (80 Assembly, 20 state Senate and 53 congressional), Republicans won all the seats previously held by the GOP and Democrats retained all of their seats at stake. Experts say they are not aware of that ever happening before in California.

Schwarzenegger wants to change the system to restore a competitive democracy in many districts, and he is threatening to call a special election for this fall and put the issue to voters if lawmakers won’t surrender their power to draw district boundaries. If legislative leaders are smart, they will cut a deal with the governor, perhaps in exchange for liberalizing their term limits.

This redistricting business is uniquely American, Quinn says. “In England, when a seat got too big in population, they just created another one.” But in California, the membership remains static. “The first 60 years of [the last] century, there was a desire not to redistrict at all,” Quinn said. But a series of “one man, one vote” court decisions in the 1960s forced redistricting to guarantee that all districts were of similar population -- so that each citizen’s vote counted as much in one district as in another. This ended the traditional rural domination of the state Senate, which had been modeled after the federal system.

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Democrats in control of the Legislature drew gerrymandered districts in the 1960s and 1980s. They attempted the same in the 1970s and 1990s, but Republican governors refused to go along, throwing the job to the state Supreme Court. Both of the court-driven plans were better than the previous ones. The 1990s districts especially were far more compact, and more competitive politically than the present districts. They were drawn to serve the voters, not just the politicians.


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