The California Progress Report has a letter by Joanne McKray, a State Board Member of Common Cause and active in the California League of Women Voters. Part of the message is here, the rest below the fold.
Gerrymandering is a long-standing tradition in US political history. It is not a time-honored one, because it makes our government less representative of its citizens. Gerrymandering in the State of California means that certain cities, counties, and groups bound by common interests end up with diluted or nonexistent voice in Sacramento.
The situation is the result of the fact that in our state legislators draw the boundaries of their own voting districts, an obvious conflict of interest. Beyond Constitutional requirements to create districts with equal numbers of voting citizens, they are bound by few rules. So, with the goal (achieved with 99% success) of seeing that incumbents are reelected, legislators slice and dice cities and neighborhoods at will.
Gerrymandered districts are common, but not inevitable. In at least six states Independent Citizen Commissions do the redistricting once a decade following the census, with a mandate to create a map designed, not to favor incumbents or any political party, but rather to see that diverse voices have balanced and fair representation.
A drive to collect signatures for a ballot measure to create such a commission in California, entitled the California Voters First Initiative, is currently underway.
The Attorney General’s summary of its chief purposes and points states:
“Creates 14-member redistricting commission responsible for drawing new district lines for State Senate, Assembly, and Board of Equalization districts. Requires State Auditor to randomly select commission members from voter applicant pool to create a commission with five members from each of the two largest political parties, and four members unaffiliated with either political party. Requires nine votes to approve final district maps. Establishes standards for drawing new lines, including respecting the geographic integrity of neighborhoods and encouraging geographic compactness. Permits State Legislature to draw lines for congressional districts subject to these standards…”
The citizen applicants for the commission would be vetted for their impartiality, skills, and diversity, given appropriate staff assistance, and operate in public.
How would passage of such a measure change the political landscape in California?
First and foremost it would create a fair and open process for post-census redrawing of voting district boundaries, one that would eliminate back-room deals whereby voters are traded and districts are contorted by officials trying to ensure their own reelection.
In addition it would help prevent minority communities from being underrepresented, since its mapping criteria ranks adherence to the Voting Rights Act, passed by Congress in the civil right era, right after adherence to the U.S. Constitution. The V.R.A. was designed to protect minority communities, if large enough to constitute the majority of a district, from being split up; in recent years the courts have been somewhat lax in enforcing it. The California Voters First Act would establish further legal basis to help assure that Latino, Asian, and Afro-American communities were not disenfranchised.
Since the Citizens Commission would be independent and balanced, neither party would be advantaged. Thus the relative strength of each would likely remain the same, with Democrats dominant on the coast and Republicans inland. In a few areas competitive districts could emerge, encouraging the election of more moderate legislators. This in turn might reduce the frequency of gridlock on the budget, and on legislation concerning health, education, and the environment.
California Voters First is the measure which representatives from the Governor’s office, the Legislature, and good government groups worked on for over two years, and which legislative leaders had promised to place on the February ballot along with term limit modification as a reform package. The legislative leaders reneged on their agreement; they placed only term limit adjustment (Proposition 93 which went down in flames) on the ballot. Common Cause, AARP, the League of Women Voters, and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce stepped into the breach to undertake the present petition drive. Almost a million signatures must be gathered by April 15 to place California Voters First on the November ballot. You can help; go to cavotersfirst.org for further information and to request four or ten signature petitions.