There were high hopes when voters approved Propositions 11 and 20 to form the California Citizens Redistricting Commission to redraw the boundaries for Congress, the state Legislature and the Board of Equalization. By taking this power out of the hands of self-serving politicians and placing it in the hands of 14 residents, the expectation was that fairer lines would be drawn and everybody would be happy.
Now that the process has been completed, it turns out that politics intruded into an essentially political process, some districts have strange shapes and not everybody is happy with the results.
Republicans are planning to place a referendum on the June 2012 ballot to redo the state Senate districts, which they feel could lead to a two-thirds Democrat majority in the Senate. That’s large enough to raise taxes without GOP support.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is considering suing to overturn the boundaries, which they feel shortchange the state’s rapidly growing Latino population. African Americans are concerned that white majority districts will still predominate, even though whites no longer make up a majority in the state.
And one of the commissioners is so unhappy that he accused the commission of breaking the law, failing to draw maps in an open and transparent process and basing its decisions on political motives.
None of this should be surprising. Imagine the difficulty in carving up a state with more than 37 million people and more than 163,000 square miles into 80 Assembly districts, 40 Senate districts and 53 Congressional districts in such a way that every political and ethnic group is satisfied while also adhering to the arcane rules of the Voting Rights Act.
Ironically, San Francisco is relatively quiescent about its redistricting, which remains mostly status quo. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s seat will safely remain hers as long as she wants it. The Senate districts of Mark Leno and Leland Yee remain intact until 2014. And the Assembly districts of Tom Ammiano and Fiona Ma will be modified but remain largely intact.
If Republicans are able to collect the half-million signatures needed by Sept. 29 to qualify the referendum for the ballot, it may be an uphill battle to get voters to overturn the state Senate districts. Voters may legitimately question why the commission would draw unfair Senate boundaries, according to Republicans, but do a good job with Assembly and Congressional districts.
It remains to be seen whether MALDEF will file suit. But an argument can be made that Latinos have gotten a decent shake, with the number of Latino majority districts increasing to 29 from the current 19.
While there may have been inequities in the current redistricting process, it’s undoubtedly better than 2001, when politicians carved up California in their own interests. As a result, in 765 elections since 2002 only five seats have changed parties. Time will tell whether the new districts will be an improvement on that oligarchic misadventure. But, despite the concerns, we’re hopeful.