Incumbents resist redistricting

The odds worsened considerably last week for California to become the first state in which the Legislature voluntarily relinquished its power to redraw district boundaries after every 10-year U.S. census. A proposed constitutional amendment to transfer this authority to a nonpartisan 11-member commission stalled in the Senate as its five-week summer recess began.

It has long been evident that one of the worst barriers to our state government initiating any meaningful advances is the fact that incumbent legislators have charge of drawing election district lines. Not surprisingly, this tends to result in creation of peculiarly shaped districts, virtually guaranteeing each officeholder’s re-election until term limits are reached.

In turn, guaranteed re-election virtually assures continuation of heavy-handed partisanship and nurtures legislative disregard for seeking compromise in the public interest. Twelve states have already barred legislators drawing their own election districts and turned that power over to commissions. Another five states have commissionsas back-up if lawmakers cannot approve new districts by deadline.

However, in California no less than four ballot propositions to establish redistricting commissions have been rejected during the past 23 years. California voters display a visceral distrust of allowing appointees to set election districts, apparently suspecting this might allow even less public oversight than when directly elected officials draw the lines.

The most recent failed attempt was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Proposition 77 in the November 2005 special election, which would have turned over redistricting to a panel of three retired judges. But the proposed constitutional amendment appears to overcome many of the presumed objections to Prop. 77.

No more than four members of the new 11-member redistricting commission could be from the same political party and no two could be from the same county. Members must have retained the same party or independent affiliation for the past three years; could not have sought or held any public, party or political staff position for three years; and could not work as a lobbyist for three years after leaving the commission.

Commission candidates would come from a pool of 50 nominated by a bipartisan panel of 10 retired judges. The Democratic and Republican legislative leaders would select eight commissioners, and those eight commissioners would then select three unaffiliated “third-party” commissioners.

The plan appears to contain enough built-in safeguards to prevent corrupt manipulation of California redistricting. Hopefully the state’s voters will soon have their chance to make a direct decision on the merits, if not this November then as quickly as possible in 2007.

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