Last Sunday, two competing editorials were published in the San Francisco Chronicle discussing two proposed redistricting bills in California, Proposition 20 and Proposition 27. Both propositions focus on changing the Congressional redistricting process. Proposition 20 would give the task to the Citizen Redistricting Commission, which already draws the lines for the legislative districts. Proposition 27 would have the Legislature do it, but impose public oversight and strict guidelines on the process. The editorials dealing with these propositions took opposite views: Daniel Lowenstein of UCLA supported Proposition 27, saying it would reduce the cost and create equal districts; Alice Huffman, president of the NAACP, argued that Proposition 20 would prevent districts from being drawn for the benefit of politicians. Both disagreed strongly with the claims in the other.
So who’s right and who’s wrong? As is usually the case, the answer is not black and white.
Proposition 20 would expand the duties of California’s Citizen Redistricting Commission to include drawing the lines for congressional districts. This Commission is made of 14 California voters: five registered Democrats, five registered Republicans, and four who are registered to neither major party. Huffman claims this process would be less partisan and remove political bias. No one party would have more power than the other since three votes from each group – the Democrats, Republicans, and minor parties – are required before a map would be considered approved. This is in contrast to the current process within the Legislature where the party in power at the time is usually the one who gets the most favorable district map.
Proposition 27 charges the state Legislature with redistricting, but attempts to balance that with standards of public review. Hearings are required to allow public comments on the proposed maps, and a statewide referendum would be held on the four final maps produced. These transparency standards closely resemble the standards in Proposition 20 but are different from other states like Florida and New York, where the Legislature passes the map into law without public referendum.
Lowenstein claims that keeping redistricting in the hands of elected politicians is fairer because the people elect the Legislature whereas a panel of three accountants chooses the Commission. The California State Auditor in turn appoints the panel. According to Lowenstein, the link from the Commission to the voter is too stretched to make the Commission accountable to the voter.
Lowenstein argues that having the Legislature do redistricting – and putting strict limits on the amount of money they can spend – will reduce the cost of the enterprise. He also emphasizes that having more senior, experienced Congressmen in office will bring more federal money to the state. Therefore, we shouldn’t jeopardize their seniority by charging inexperienced voters with redistricting.
Limiting the amount spent for redistricting sounds like a good idea but is that the goal of this bill or is it really to protect incumbents? If it’s the former, couldn’t we simply put spending caps on the Commission and limit spending that way? If it’s to protect incumbents, one may have very little sympathy for incumbents who have to artificially create electorates in order to get re-elected.
While Proposition 27 has its problems, Proposition 20 is not perfect, either. Sec. 3(d)(4) states the following (italics are proposed language to be added to the existing statute):
The geographic integrity of any… local community of interest shall be respected in a manner that minimizes their division … A community of interest is a contiguous population, which shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation.
In this section, the phrase “common social and economic interests” leads Lowenstein to worry that districts will be drawn in a way that segregates poor areas from wealthy areas.
The examples given in the statute only make things worse:
Examples of such shared interests are those common to an urban area, a rural area, an industrial area, or an agricultural area, and those common to areas in which the people share similar living standards, use the same transportation facilities, have similar work opportunities, or have access to the same media of communication relevant to the election process…
Following these, if industrial areas are put in a distinct district from urban areas, it would usually follow that the industrial area would contain more poverty. Using standards like “similar living standards” and “similar work opportunities” would put an even finer point on the distinctions between rich and poor areas.
Furthermore, agricultural and rural areas would certainly have less people in them than the urban and industrial, thus creating unequal representation. The only language in the statute governing population equality is Sec. 2(d)(1): “Congressional districts shall achieve population equality as nearly as is practicable.”
Huffman explains that, because the process is so open, it “would be impossible to slip something unfair through.” The voters would have a chance to choose what they wanted in a referendum. Perhaps that would be enough oversight, but it may be difficult for the public to really see unfairness in district maps. Even if they did, who would force the Commission to change it once it was in?
Proposition 27 has the same stipulations, requiring the Legislature to take public comments and to hold a referendum on their maps. In contrast to Prop 20, the criterion for drawing maps is much stricter. Districts are supposed to be “precisely equal with other districts for the same office. If precise population equality is mathematically impossible, a population variation of no more than plus or minus one person shall be allowed.”
Furthermore, it requires the Legislature to hire legal counsel who “has extensive experience…in the implementation and enforcement of the federal Voting Rights Act.” In terms of keeping neighborhoods intact, cities and counties can’t be divided unless it’s to maintain population equality.
Obviously, there are potential problems with both of the propositions. Having an independent commission do the redistricting would most likely make the process less partisan and fairer to all the political parties. However, Prop 20’s provision dealing with “economic and social interests” may create unfairness on a more serious level. Leaving redistricting in the hands of the Legislature hasn’t shown to result in logic or fairness in the past, but the equal population criteria in Prop 27 is clear, though extremely strict, and would likely result in fairness if followed in good faith.
One solution could be to create a new proposition that puts the responsibility of redistricting in the hands of the Commission but includes a form of the population guidelines in Proposition 27. Since there’s no way to do that right now, I’m more comfortable with Prop 27 and hope that the public input and strict population requirements in it will ensure an open and fair process.
Kelci Block is a student at William and Mary School of Law and an editor at Stateofelections.com.