Another chance at redistricting in California

For the second time in four years -- and the fifth time in a generation -- California voters will be asked in November to approve a new procedure for drawing electoral districts. Proposition 11 would create a redistricting commission made up of 14 regular citizens. These citizens, chosen through an elaborate process, would set the borders of all Assembly and state Senate districts. (Congressional districts would continue to be drawn by the Legislature.)

Proposition 11 is a good, if somewhat eccentric, proposal. And though most past redistricting initiatives have failed, there are some promising signs that this measure might just be the rare success story.

What’s good about Proposition 11 is that it would make California’s elections more competitive. At present, the Legislature’s self-interested politicians design their own districts. The unsurprising results were demonstrated by the 2004 and 2006 general elections, when not a single incumbent lost and not a single seat changed parties. No one knows how adept ordinary citizens would be at drawing district lines. But they surely could do no worse than the foxes that currently guard California’s henhouse.

It’s the citizen commissioner idea that makes this proposition eccentric. In other states, redistricting commissions are typically staffed with legislative appointees, retired judges or election law experts -- not ordinary people. Exempting congressional districts is unexpected as well. If it is so important for elections to be competitive, one might ask, why shouldn’t federal races follow the new rules too?

These oddities are explained by California’s long and tortured history of redistricting reform efforts. In 1982, 1984, 1990 and 2005, similar initiatives failed, never winning more than 45% of the vote. Each time, opponents claimed that the new commissioners would be mostly old white men, unreflective of California’s diversity. Opponents also argued that the Democratic Party, which holds a strong majority in Sacramento, should not unilaterally disarm. Because conservative states such as Texas have gerrymandered in favor of congressional Republicans, they argued, California had to keep gerrymandering in favor of Democrats.

Proposition 11 responds to both of these criticisms.

Regular citizens -- even the ones who survive the layers of screening -- should be more diverse and in touch than politicians or judges. And because the initiative applies only to state elections, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can sleep easy that her majority is safe.

But even these concessions may not be enough to buck the historical trend. There have been 12 redistricting initiatives in U.S. history, and only four have succeeded. In the last 30 years, the record is even worse: just one (in Arizona in 2000) in seven. The unfortunate reality is that state majority parties always respond ferociously to efforts to change the redistricting process. They typically outspend and out-organize reformers and coast to victory on election day.

Alas, Proposition 11 may already be following this pattern. California’s Democratic establishment has lined up to oppose the initiative, as have left-leaning interest groups such as the AFL-CIO and the NAACP. And polls now show an essentially tied race -- down from a 12-point lead for the initiative in July.

So what are Proposition 11’s backers to do? History, again, is instructive. Arizona’s 2000 initiative succeeded largely because of the unrelenting editorial support of the state’s main newspaper and disagreement between leaders of the majority Republican Party. It was also helpful that the pro-initiative side had more funds at its disposal and that Arizona’s Democrats maintained a united (and supportive) front.

In some respects, California in 2008 is starting to look like Arizona in 2000. The Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle already have praised Proposition 11. Prominent Democrats, such as former Gov. Gray Davis, former Treasurer Steve Westly and former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, have come out in favor of the initiative. In contrast to 2005, when most of California’s Republican congressmen opposed Proposition 77, no high-profile conservatives have voiced any objections. And the pro-initiative side has, thus far, dramatically out-raised the opposition -- thanks in large part to donations from Democrats.

Given Californians’ history of voting against redistricting reform, no one should yet bet on Proposition 11’s passage. But the measure’s long odds might just be getting a bit shorter.

Nicholas Stephanopoulos is an attorney in Washington specializing in election law.