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Make way for redistricting in California

Some Democrats are bound to hate it, because it may jeopardize their party’s lock on a seat in Congress or slow their drive to capture two-thirds of each house in the Legislature. Some Republicans may dismiss it, because it doesn’t reinvent California as a GOP stronghold. Politicos of all stripes will probably scoff at it, because it’s the result of a citizen-driven process and not a politician-controlled backroom deal. And some reformers may even rail at it, because it doesn’t differ enough from the map of district lines California has had for decades.

And that’s just fine. The preliminary report to be issued Friday by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which features new district maps for the state’s congressional and legislative districts, is both a work in progress and a triumph for citizens no longer content to allow political parties to carve up the state for their own purposes. The commission was created after a painstaking and admittedly complex process mandated by two ballot measures that California voters adopted over the fierce objections of the political establishment. The goal was to strengthen the power of voters in the decennial redrawing of districts that follows each national census.

Recent redistricting efforts, handled by Democratic and Republican party officials, too often resulted in districts in which politicians picked and chose their voters rather than the other way around. A Democrat in the Assembly, for example, might be rewarded for loyalty to the Assembly speaker or for prodigious political fundraising by having a Senate district drawn to favor him and disfavor a more independent-minded colleague. A Republican lawmaker might similarly be rewarded with a congressional district drawn just for her. The parties may have struggled against one another to win a seat here or there, but for the most part they were only too happy to work together and cut deals to protect their own incumbents while drawing district lines.

The maps released Friday will not be perfect, because perfection in drawing district lines is impossible. The initiatives require the commission to, as much as possible, keep “communities of interest” together, but there are many ways of defining such communities. Households might be grouped by income, geography, lot size, propensity to vote, ethnicity or any one of dozens of other criteria. Layer on top of that the desire to make districts more competitive. Ballot measure language provides some guidance, but if there were no need for judgment calls, the lines could be drawn by computer. They can’t.

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As part of the unprecedented public role, voters are invited to attend commission meetings, submit comments or suggest alternative lines at wedrawthelines.ca.gov. Participants may find the process less tidy than the old way: leaving the decisions to political parties. But the goal is not tidiness. The goal is a fair and functioning democracy.


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