California remapping panel must be wary of political, legal traps

Political cartography may not be rocket science, but redrawing legislative districts is an arcane, highly technical process with countless legal and political pitfalls.

California is shifting the drawing of new legislative and congressional districts from the Legislature — which notoriously uses it to fix elections — to a Citizens Redistricting Commission, and the biggest uncertainty is whether it will fall into one of those traps.

The names of the first eight redistricting commissioners were chosen at random Thursday and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who championed the shift via ballot measures, declared, “The redistricting reforms we achieved on the ballot take the power of drawing district lines away from the politicians and puts it in the hands of the people — where it belongs.”

Well, maybe.

The eight commissioners, survivors from more than 30,000 initial applicants, will choose six more colleagues from the remaining 28 finalists. The full panel must consist of five Democrats, five Republicans and four either independents or minor-party registrants.

After receiving data from the 2010 census, the commission will draw 80 new Assembly districts, 40 new state Senate districts, four new Board of Equalization districts and new districts for however many congressional members California has — 53 now but a number that could go up or down or remain unchanged, depending on final ­census results.

That’s when the fun begins. Those in the tiny community of redistricting experts, most of whom are affiliated with one of the two major parties, are already lining up to become paid advisers to the commission. Choosing consultants who can navigate the process without stealthily skewing it toward one party or the other will be one of the commission’s most vital early decisions.

It would help immensely were law professor Paul McKaskle one of those chosen Thursday. McKaskle is a law professor who was hired by the state Supreme Court to draw new districts when it took on the chore due to political stalemates after the 1970 and 1990 censuses.

The redistricting plans must meet many state and federal legal standards, such as population equality, compactness and fairness to ethnic minorities (although every Californian is now a minority) and whatever the commission decrees probably will be challenged in federal or state courts by someone on some grounds.

Thus, unless the maps are meticulously drawn, judges could wind up doing the chore once again.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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