How to revive redistricting reform

In the movie Groundhog’s Day, the Bill Murray character, a weatherman who is doomed to repeat the same day over and over, asks a question that haunts redistricting reformers in California: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

With the recent failure of the Legislature to place redistricting reform on the ballot–for the second year in a row–reformers are scrambling for a way forward. One way would be to spend millions of dollars to gather signatures on a voter initiative. But without support from California’s Democratic leaders, that path likely would result in the Son of Proposition 77, a replay of the Schwarzenegger-supported measure that failed miserably at the ballot box in 2005.

Redistricting reform is snagged in the same web of incumbent and partisan self-interest that for years has bedeviled the best of well-intentioned efforts. But a statewide survey commissioned by the nonpartisan New America Foundation offers the best way forward.

The survey found that 70 percent of California voters are more likely to support political reform proposed by a panel of average citizens than they are to support the ideas of a government committee, or even a panel of independent experts. Revealing strong distrust of politicians, the survey also found 70 percent support for the convening of a “citizens assembly” of the type that has been demonstrated recently in Canada.

A citizen’s assembly is composed of 160 randomly selected voters who reflect the diversity and demographics of the population. This body spends nearly a year studying the election process and holding numerous public hearings. Then, they are empowered to formulate reform proposals that are placed directly on the ballot, without tampering by the state Legislature or governor, for ratification by their fellow citizens.

In short, a citizens-assembly process creates a new, more deliberative route to the ballot for political reform that removes incumbency protection and partisanship from the process. And it holds the potential to engage the public in a way the current process will never do. Instead of relying on the whims of a self-interested Legislature, or some Silicon Valley gazillionaire to buy her or his way on to the ballot, a citizens assembly allows average citizens to be in the driver’s seat via a very public process.

In the New America survey, three-fourths of the respondents said they would like to see the governor and the Legislature create a citizens assembly in California. And more than two-thirds said if the governor and Legislature failed to create one, they would vote for an initiative to create the citizens assembly.

Therein lies the key to reform. In recent years, a number of promising reforms have been proposed for California’s political system–independent redistricting, term limits, “top two” primary, public financing of campaigns, instant runoff voting–but all have faced the same obstacle: entrenched interests, including elected lawmakers, who benefit from the status quo.

Oftentimes the reform itself has been viewed as an extension of the partisan war, whether it’s redistricting perceived as a GOP gambit or Proposition 89’s public financing seen as a vehicle of certain labor unions.

So a citizens assembly solves a real dilemma: How do we enact meaningful political reform when political parties and special interests have conflicts of interest that induce them to manipulate the rules in their favor? Californians want reform, but they want it to be done in a fair and nonpartisan way. What is overwhelmingly clear is that people don’t trust politicians or special interests to design our democracy.

For over two years, both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders have said they agree on the need for reform but have been unable to come together on the details. Given the poll numbers showing Californians’ overwhelming support, the political moment couldn’t be riper for convening a California citizens assembly. Let average citizens propose to their fellow Californians what political reform is best for our state.

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