Redistricting: Keeping California from reaching #1?

March 4, 2010

It is a contest nobody wants to win, which you watch with your hand over your eyes. We’ve discussed, again and again and again, the singular dysfunction of New York’s legislature. But California, with a $20 billion deficit contributing to the worst credit rating in the country (now as creditworthy as Libya), and a recent mess in which they either confirmed or did not confirm a lieutenant governor, is fighting for the #1 spot. 

The principal difference between the two states? As the New York Times reports today, on the western horizon there is a structural change that may offer some promise for the future.

The change has to do with redistricting. The 2010 census will tell us that different parts of the country have grown at different rates over the last ten years; after the census numbers are in, to ensure equal representation, states and counties and cities will go about redrawing the lines of their districts so that the population is roughly equal. In most of[pdf] the country[pdf], state legislators have assigned themselves the task of drawing the lines for state legislative districts.

That presents an odd conflict of interest, with politicians choosing their voters rather than the other way around. It has many effects, including the ability for incumbents to draw lines that cut promising challengers out of the district. Among the more notorious examples: here is Bobby Rush’s congressional district in 2000. You’ll find the residence of then-state-Senator Barack Obama in the northeast; Obama ran against Rush that year, and won more than 30% of the vote in the congressional primary. Here is the district in 2002, after redistricting. Obama's residence is still in the northeast – but if you zoom in, you’ll find that it has been surgically sliced out of the district, by a block or two on each side. In fact, all of Rush’s challengers in 2000 found themselves outside of the new district.  It is hard to find an explanation for that that reflects any straight-faced conception of the public good.

In 2008, California voters narrowly passed Prop 11, a ballot initiative taking the power to draw districts for the state legislature out of the incumbents’ hands and giving it to a citizens’ commission (A description of the commission here). There are some very substantial limitations [pdf] on which citizens are eligible [pdf] for the commission, which have earned both praise and scorn; the heartening news, though, is that almost 26,000 apparently eligible Californians have applied for what will ultimately be 14 commissioner spots. 

Though I have been telecommuting to the Brennan Center from California for a few years, and study redistricting for a living, I’m not one of the 26,000 applicants: I am too recent a resident to help draw the district lines that will drive state politics for the next ten years. I did, however, have the opportunity to participate in training [pdf] the panel of state auditors [pdf] tasked with picking the 60 most qualified would-be redistricters in the state. The panel has their work cut out for them, to be sure (see the powerpoint, below--it's an overview of what factors the panel should consider). But if an open and conscientious commission reflecting the diversity of the state can be assembled — and both proponents and opponents of Prop 11 are now working together in the hopes that it can — there will be a chance to shape legislative districts based on principles other than the electoral fortunes of those currently in office. 

The change to the redistricting system won’t solve California’s legislative woes on its own. But it might help keep California out of the top dysfunctional spot, in a contest I’m happy to lose.