Opinion: Proposition 20: Fighting against rigged congressional districts

In 212 elections for the House of Representatives from California during the past decade, exactly one district has changed parties.  And exactly one incumbent congressman has been defeated.

If you thought these election results were part of a secret plot to keep incumbent politicians in office, you would be right.  In September 2001, the Legislature passed and the governor signed a bipartisan gerrymander of California’s 53 congressional districts that split the state into 33 districts safe for the Democrats and 20 safe for the Republicans.  Both parties bought off on this deal; it was blessed at the highest reaches of the White House in Washington.

Proposition 20 ends the 60-year practice of legislators drawing districts to protect seats for their friends in Congress. It will place congressional redistricting under the auspices of the voter-approved Citizens Redistricting Commission.  That commission is now assigned the duty of establishing new legislative and Board of Equalization districts; Proposition 20 simply adds congressional districts to their duties.

For more than half a century, both parties have engaged in a cynical process of gerrymandering California’s congressional delegation to reach for partisan advantage.  Republicans began the process in 1951 when they controlled the levers of power; Democrats repaid the favor in 1961 when they were in charge. In 2001, both parties got together to draw congressional lines that favored the incumbent members of congress.  One district in the San Fernando Valley was diluted of its Latino population so the incumbent congressman would not face a primary challenge.

Over these many decades, democracy has taken root throughout the world, and advanced societies have allowed their people to decide who governs them.  But not in California; with only two exceptions when the politicians did not draw their own districts, a parade of gerrymandered congressional districting plans meant that the politicians decided who the voters were going to elect, in a sophisticated stuffing of ballot boxes that would have made the old Supreme Soviet proud.

This is achieved by segregating California’s communities into separate enclaves – Democrats here, Republicans there – solely to protect incumbent members of congress.  The tortured and rambling congressional district lines are not by accident; they place Democrats into safe Democratic districts and Republicans into safe Republicans districts.  

As a result, only one incumbent member of congress, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, has been defeated over the past decade, and he lost after charges of personal corruption. Pombo’s district was one of the worst examples of congressional gerrymandering.  It ran from Lodi in the San Joaquin Valley to Morgan Hill in southern Santa Clara County, bypassing millions of people while searching out favorable precincts like a pig sniffing out truffles.  Had the corruption charges not been raised against Pombo, he would still be enjoying the delicacy of his safe district.

Proposition 20 not only ends the sweetheart districting deal for incumbent members of congress, it also specifies how the Citizens Commission is to draw the lines.  It does this by defining the communities of interest that should be included in a district as “a contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation.”

The only “community of interest” that guides current congressional districting is taking care of the political needs of incumbent politicians.  That will end with Proposition 20.  By requiring districts to be built around shared economic and social interests, rather than just partisan behavior, the new districts will actually empower voters to decide the outcomes.
Twice in the past 60 years we have seen how this sort of districting works. In the 1970s, when the legislature and governor could not agree on the congressional districts, a panel of retired judges appointed by the State Supreme Court drew the lines.  The same thing occurred in the 1990s.

In both decades, districts drawn by the retired judges gave voters the ability to elect their members of congress.  There was tremendous ebb and flow between the parties, and some members of congress actually lost their seats.  The districts were logical; they did not wander all over the map.  

During the years those districting plans were in effect, California had fair and effective representation.  And in both the 1970s and 1990s, the numbers of women and minorities in the congressional delegation increased, since protecting the good old boy network of incumbents was no longer the sole criterion.

Sixteen million California voters are largely left out of choosing their members of congress under the current system; the only Californians who really benefit under the existing system are the 53 incumbent members of congress (who are also raising all the money to defeat Proposition 20).  Except for two or three shaky incumbents, they need not spend a whole lot of time coming back to the state to campaign.  After all, their districts were drawn to be safe, and as we have seen over the past decade, they certainly are.

Proposition 20 is very simple; it empowers the voter-approved Citizens  Redistricting Commission to draw new congressional districts for California in 2011.  The losers are clear: 53 incumbent members of congress.  But the winners are also clear: 16 million California voters.

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