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Independent panel to draw the line on districts in California

Citizens’ redistricting commission selected at random

- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2010

It was as Californian as beaches, surfing and movie stars, but the legislative gerrymander may now be a thing of the past in the Golden State.

The pencil was officially passed to a new generation of map-makers Thursday when eight members of California's newly approved citizens' redistricting commission were selected at random. The panel is charged with drawing the lines for both legislative and congressional districts, a task that previously belonged to the Democrat-controlled state Legislature.

Deciding which voters to corral into which districts can determine the political power of a party, and that's certainly been the case in California, where Democrats have enjoyed decades of dominance, thanks in significant part to their control of the redistricting process.

The independent redistricting commission isn't expected to push California Democrats into the minority - they retain a sizable voter-registration advantage - but it could well mark the end of the state's Picasso-like district maps and suspiciously safe seats on both sides of the aisle.

"We're going from the colorful but dark side of gerrymandering to, hopefully, a new era of redistricting in the voters' interest that could be a model for the rest of the nation," said Douglas Johnson, a redistricting expert and fellow at the Rose Institute in Claremont, Calif.

Independent commissions now draw the congressional lines for seven states, but the California panel is considered more independent and less partisan than most. Eight of the 14 commissioners are selected by a lottery process from a pool of pre-screened finalists and not by the state Legislature or political parties.

The eight commissioners will appoint the remaining six panelists from the 28 remaining finalists by Dec. 31. The final commission must consist of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four independent or minor-party voters.

The commission is modeled on the Arizona system, which is considered the most independent in the nation.

"Arizona and California are the only two commissions to have both an independent selection process and an independent commission," Mr. Johnson said.

"In other states, you have an independent commission, but the Republicans appoint half the members, and the Democrats appoint half, and then they draw up a bipartisan gerrymander that protects everyone."

California has a rich history of outrageous redistricting plans, notably the 1981 map devised by then-Rep. Phillip Burton, a Democrat. The so-called Burton gerrymander, which gave Democrats hefty majorities in both the legislature and Congress, was so blatant that even Mr. Burton called it his "contribution to modern art."

The Democrats picked up five congressional seats in 1982 with the Burton map that, among other things, pushed two Republican incumbent congressmen into the same district. Rep. David Dreier ended up defeating Rep. Wayne Grisham in that contest.

In 2000, Republicans essentially declared defeat by agreeing to a map that kept Democrats in power, but carved out seats for both parties that were virtually impenetrable. Only one U.S. House seat changed parties during the course of the next decade.

But the lack of turnover produced a backlash that resulted in the passage of Proposition 11, which turned over redistricting power for legislative districts to an independent commission, despite the strong opposition of congressional Democrats led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Proposition 11 had its own high-profile support: It was backed by multi-millionaire Charles Munger Jr., the son of investment banker and Warren Buffet partner Charles Munger, who spent $12.5 million of his own money on the campaign.

Still, Proposition 11's margin of victory was narrow — 51 to 49 percent — and Democrats swung back in November with Proposition 27, which would have returned line-drawing authority to the state legislature.

But Proposition 27 was overwhelmingly defeated by a margin of 60 to 40 percent. Even worse for Democrats, voters approved Proposition 20, which extended the redistricting commission[']s authority to congressional districts.

The initiative requires districts to be geographically contiguous and respect the natural boundaries of the district, such as city and county limits, neighborhoods and communities. One looming hurdle is that the final map must be approved by nine members of the commission.

"One question is, will they be able to pass a plan? Can they get to nine?" said Tim Storey, redistricting specialist and senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The rules of the commission are cumbersome, and in the end, success is in the eye of the beholder."

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