Once upon a time, there was this country whose founders that had the idea that the people ought to have some say in their governance. They’d had a rather bad experience with this monarchy/colony deal and felt that there had to be a better way. It was a very radical idea at the time. There were founding fathers that feared that the rabbled masses would wreak havoc, so compromises were reached to insure that the elite, landed classes of the time would have a big enough piece of the action to protect their wealth and insure “stability”. That —in a nutshell– is how we ended up with a bi-cameral (two house) legislative system. (Nerd alert: history/poli sci buffs, I know that this is much more complex. You try putting it into a single paragraph.)
It didn’t take too long for our some of more politically crafty ancestors, to realize that even the “representative” part of the legislative house equation could be massaged to further protect their interests. A Massachusetts governor who conveniently redrew a few erratic lines in 1812 enshrined his place in history, as the process is now dubbed “gerrymandering.” A few squiggles here and there, as it turns out, can affect voting outcome in favor of a particular candidate, political party, or economic interest group.
Both Democrats and Republicans have used gerrymandering over the past few hundred years as a weapon to ensure that a vast majority of political races at all levels were practically foregone conclusions. Today, computer software utilized by high paid consultants aids the process by carving out ever-more contorted district maps of scattered neighborhoods to concentrate voters in certain districts and carve up the opponent’s territory.
The Golden State’s Metamorphosis
In the past decade, California’s population has undergone a major shift eastward, with people moving to California’s inland areas from its coastal enclaves. This means that California’s congressional district boundaries will certainly go through a major redrawing next year. The Bay Area, for example grew less than 1% since the last redistricting, while the Central Valley area has grown by 21%. Los Angeles County has grown 5%, while San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial Counties have grown by 17%. Another important issue is that California’s populace hasn’t grown, relative to the the rest of the United States, and may have even shrunk proportionally, mean that the state may even lose one or two seats.
Controlling the redistricting process is easier and cheaper than campaigning for incumbent politicians. In 2001, U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Orange County) admitted that she and her colleagues paid $20,000 to map-maker Michael Berman to preserve their seats. “Twenty thousand is nothing to keep your seat,” Sanchez said. “I spend $2 million (campaigning) every election.”
Dueling Propositions Hit The Ballot
So, on some levels, it’s not too surprising that there are two measures on this fall’s California Ballot concerned with the process of redistricting, which occurs every ten years following the release of U.S. Census data. Traditionally this process is once-a-decade ballet where politicians go behind closed doors, and emerge, having drawn state legislative and congressional boundaries that all but guarantee that they and their pals will remain in power for the next 10 years.
In 2008, California voters threw a monkey wrench into the traditional scheme by approving Proposition 11 (The California Voters FIRST Act), which relegated this task to a “non-partisan” citizens’ commission to draw district lines for California Assembly members and Senators. Members of the commission must not have run for state or federal office for the previous 10 years, been lobbyists or donated more than $2,000 to any one political candidate.
So now we have Proposition 20, which will expand the process to include district lines for California’s 53 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. It also mandates that congressional districts maintain the geographic integrity of cities, counties, local neighborhoods and local communities of interest. Communities of interest are defined, in part, as a population that “shares common social and economic interests.” This definition has generated some controversy among opponents, who view it as a potential vehicle for “Jim Crow” redistricting.
Proponents of Prop 20 include many groups traditionally described as “good government” organizations, like Common Cause. In testimony before a legislative committee, California Common Cause Executive Director Kathay Feng argued that some communities were disenfranchised when they were carved up during the last redistricting effort in 2001. She pointed the finger at lawmakers, saying they engage in:
“…horse-trading communities as a way of ensuring they have job security. The small community of Watts (in Los Angeles) was divided three ways in both state Senate lines and congressional lines. They do not have a single representative to turn to in times of need – that really disenfranchises them.”
The sole funder of Proposition 20 is one Charles T. Munger Jr., physicist and noted Republican donor. Munger is the 53-year-old son of Charles Munger, the Los Angeles attorney-billionaire partner of Warren Buffett, so he’s got plenty of money to burn. He’s dished out $5.7 million in political donations since 2005. Much of that ($4.6 million) has gone for initiatives to strip lawmakers of their power to draw their own boundaries.
Mighty Morphin’ Donor Switches Sides
The opposition for Proposition 20 includes members of Congress whose districts might shift in ways that could present challenges in upcoming races for re-election, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They’ve mounted their own campaign for Proposition 27, which will completely overturn The California Voters FIRST Act, returning control of all redistricting to the legislature.
The money behind Proposition 27 is one Haim Saban, a Los Angeles billionaire who made his initial fortune by producing “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers”. He has wisely invested, including a major stake in the nation’s largest Spanish-language network, Univision. Considering that Sabin was a donor to the “Yes on Prop 11” campaign that started California down the road towards reforming redistricting, his announcement that he’d loaned the Proposition 27 campaign $2 million came as a surprise to many observers.
It’s worth noting that the California League of Women Voters has announced their opposition to BOTH initiatives, citing uncertainty with some of the actual language in Proposition 20 and opposing completely rolling back the reforms gained in 2008 suggested by Proposition 27. (Do yourself a favor and read their arguments here.)
If both measures are passed by the voters come November, the Proposition with the most votes will cancel out the other one. These contradictory measures on the November ballot ultimately boil down to one consideration: Do you, as a voter, trust California lawmakers to draw the boundaries for legislative and congressional districts?
I’ll probably vote For 20. And I know that I’ll vote Against 27. But it is confusing. Welcome to California politics.