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Redistricting: Keeping California from reaching #1?

We’ve discussed 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, and a recent mess in which they either confirmed or did not confirm a lieutenant governor, is fighting for the #1 spot. Can better redistricting help?

  • Justin Levitt
March 5, 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.