Two propositions on the Nov. 2 ballot would change the way legislative districts are drawn every 10 years following the federal census. One builds on a 2008 law that took control of redistricting away from the state legislature; the other repeals that same law.
Proposition 20, the Voters First Act for Congress, extends the authority of a 14-member commission created by 2008’s Proposition 11. That law gave the randomly selected commission members responsibility for drawing state legislative districts, but not federal ones. Prop. 20 adds Congressional districts to their job.
Stanford physicist Charles T. Munger, a co-sponsor of Prop. 11, is the author and primary sponsor of Prop. 20. He wanted Prop. 11 to include federal redistricting, but opposition from Democrats in Congress stopped that.
“It’s power politics,” said Munger, when asked why federal redistricting was dropped from Prop. 11. “It’s a reform. It was taking on Congress as well as the California state legislature. You’re affecting the power of two groups instead of one. Essentially I’m saying, I’m taking them on.”
Opponents of Prop. 20 have pointed to its complicated wording, which sets rules for creating districts with similar groups of people. Critics argue that the law would create “Jim Crow” districts of rich and poor.
“That’s a huge red herring,” said Douglas Johnson of Claremont McKenna College’s Rose Institute of State and Local Government. “They wanted to not have an open-ended definition of ‘socioeconomic’ — the word ‘income’ never appears in Prop. 20.”
Munger notes that the proposed law uses language taken from California State Supreme Court actions in 1970 and 1990, when the court was forced to step in and do redistricting for the legislature.
Prop. 20 supporters say extending reforms to federal redistricting will prevent gerrymandering that lets representatives guarantee their own re-elections. Ironically, supporters of Proposition 27 such as Congresswoman Judy Chu, who represents the 34th District in east Los Angeles County, make exactly the same argument for returning control of redistricting to California’s legislature.
“I’m a strong supporter of Proposition 27, Financial Accountability in Redistricting (FAIR), because it ensures a fairer redistricting process,” Chu said in an e-mailed statement. “Unlike Prop 20, which sets up a totally new redistricting commission, California’s voters can hold the people who determine our state’s redistricting accountable for their decisions.
“These decisions are simply too important to leave solely in the hands of three randomly selected, unelected accountants [who] would determine the membership of this commission,” Chu continues. “Commissions take power away from the people and their elected representatives, and gives it to faceless, non-accountable bureaucrats.”
Chu, whose district includes some predominantly Asian and Hispanic communities, also points out that Prop. 27 includes rules preventing cities and counties from being split up, and requires precise population equality for all districts. But Johnson burst out laughing when asked if Prop. 27 would actually work that way.
“That’s ridiculous. It abolishes the criteria of Prop. 11,” said Johnson, who noted that, in the past, the legislature has always ignored that same redistricting rule, which is included in Prop. 11. “The legislature has repeatedly ignored it, and there’s no reason to think they won’t ignore it again. It’s just a smokescreen.”
Congressman Elton Gallegly, who represents a large chunk of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in the 24th District, has a take on the two propositions consistent with the viewpoint of Prop. 20 backers. E-mailing a statement from his Washington office, Gallegly wrote that gerrymandering continues to be a serious problem.
“That is why in 2008, California voters put the power to draw state legislative and Board of Equalization districts in the hands of an independent Citizens Redistricting Commission,” Gallegly said. “However, politicians still draw congressional district boundaries, resulting in few competitive districts throughout the state.
“I believe the authority needs to be left up to the nonpartisan commission, and support Proposition 20,” Gallegly continued. “I do not support Proposition 27 because, if it passes, even if Proposition 20 also passes, the Citizens Redistricting Commission would be eliminated, and partisan politicians again would have the authority to draw congressional and state legislative districts.”