As the California Legislature reconvenes on August 20th and concludes its work for the year on September 14th, you might be a bit surprised by what will dominate legislators’ time and attention. Naturally, one would think that putting back together our Humpty Dumpty electricity system would be the first priority. Nope. The electricity crisis will continue to dominate the newspaper headlines but it will be only the second most important issue. Making sure that the one thousand bills that are expected to become law are carefully crafted before being sent to the Governor will rank, in many legislators’ minds, a distant number three on the priority list. During the final four weeks of the session the most important deal to be cut in the air-conditioned and smoke-free backrooms will be – “the envelop please” – the redistricting bill.

Redistricting is the process in which the California Legislature every ten years redraws the district lines for the Assembly, State Senate, Congress and the Board of Equalization to account for changes in population. How the district lines are drawn can predetermine the careers of individual politicians and which party controls the political process for the next decade. It’s about who has power now and how they intend to keep it. It’s about redrawing district lines to protect incumbents, providing promotional opportunities for certain incumbents to move to higher office, and taking seats from the minority party. Insiders acknowledge that it’s all about power politics. When in 1981, reporters asked redistricting guru Congressman Philip Burton (D-San Francisco) about one bizarrely shaped congressional district that he had crafted – a district that ignored all natural geographical, city and county boundaries – he said that it was his “contribution to modern art.” That’s funny and disturbing at the same time.

At first glance, it might be easy to conclude that redistricting is all about politicians and their careers and has nothing to do with how public policy is made. But partisan gerrymandering – with districts that look like knock-off Picassos – is ultimately destructive to deliberative democracy. Instead of the people selecting their leaders (as the Founding Fathers intended), in a partisan gerrymander the legislators – with the help of sophisticated computers and software that tracks racial, party, and other demographic data on a street by street level – actually select the constituents they want to represent.

And a redistricting plan that minimizes the number of competitive districts in the state will result in the election of politicians who represent the extreme wings, rather than the mainstream, of their political parties. Rather than electing problem-solving leaders who can work productively with a wide variety of citizens and groups, we end up with too many bomb throwers who are content to do nothing but issue press releases that blame everyone except themselves for the problems of the day.

And it looks like the degradation of our deliberative democracy will continue. According to Bernard Grofnan, a political scientist at UC Irvine, “this is going to the messiest redistricting – legally and politically – that we’ve ever seen.” We could face congressional, state, ethnic group, and partisan political and legal warfare.

One new factor is that state legislators who are termed out of office may be tempted to draw congressional lines for the sole purpose of their promotion to higher office. A second and potentially explosive factor is the uncertainty to which race can be used as the predominant factor in crafting district lines. Various ethic groups, particularly in Los Angeles County, will battle to draw lines that favor the election of legislators from their particular racial or ethic group. And lastly, the Republicans have already threatened to put a referendum on the ballot or go to court to stop what they believe to be a partisan gerrymander. Putting all these conflicts into a Cuisinart will not magically produce anything resembling the general interest of the public.

The only way to restore deliberative democracy is to take redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature. Several states, including Hawaii, Idaho, New Jersey and Washington have delegated the redistricting authority to independent commissions. Commission members draw the district lines based on neutral criteria that respects communities of interest, natural geographic, and city and county boundaries. Last fall, Arizona voters passed Proposition 106 to create an independent redistricting commission despite the unanimous opposition of the state’s elected officials. According to Louis Jacobson and Chris Cilizza in a recent article for the National Journal, there is clear evidence that commission maps “are more likely to include competitive congressional districts.”

It is unlikely that the Legislature will reform itself. Only when voters of California decide that partisan gerrymandering is eroding our deliberative democracy will things change for the better. For as President Lincoln once said, “with public sentiment nothing can fail’ without it nothing can succeed.”

August 10, 2001

Postscript: Governor Davis signed AB 993 (Hertzberg), AB 994 (Hertzberg), AB 995 (Hertzberg), and AB 996 (Hertzberg) to enact the bipartisan gerrymander of all federal and state legislative offices.