A new flawed redistricting measure has made the ballot. In 2005, California voters rejected a proposal to have three retired judges draw districts using obsolete data. Now proponents are taking another shot, with the byzantine Proposition 11.
Redistricting is difficult and many of Prop. 11's supporters mean well. Yet problems riddle this measure. It relies on likely novices who would have to learn on the job, under hectic deadline conditions. It would thwart public participation. It would undermine hard-won safeguards for minority voters. And since it is an initiative, correcting these defects would be nearly impossible.
You wouldn't know it to listen to proponents. They claim that this initiative would end "paralyzing partisan gridlock." But of course gridlock is a complex phenomenon, involving the nationwide hardening of allegiances, the rise in party discipline, the end of the fairness doctrine, and much more. The proposition would no more affect gridlock than it would the rotation of the earth.
And it would burden us with multidimensional problems:
Prop. 11 is vague about commissioner expertise. Redistricting is not a school ground for the untrained. It is a maze of intricacies and line drawers need knowledge and analytical skill to draw lines fairly. There is no guarantee that the commissioners will have these qualities, and they will hardly have time to gain them.
Prop. 11 would require hasty implementation. Its deadlines for commissioner application, selection, and map development are very tight, and will not allow for sound and open redistricting. Prop 11 would sabotage the very reform it seeks.
Prop. 11's two-track approach would lessen public participation. The commission would draw districts for the legislature, but the legislature would draw them for Congress. This jackalope system would double the feedback processes, and lower participation.
Prop. 11 would create a redistricting body that is non-representative and unaccountable to voters. The public would have no say about the makeup or actions of the commission.
California's minorities are most at risk from this failing. Our legislature, once virtually all white, is starting to mirror our state's population. Prop. 11 could stall this progress even as our diversity grows. Hence opponents of Prop. 11 include MALDEF, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the William C. Velazquez Institute, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and the NALEO Educational Fund. These groups have four decades of hands-on experience in the field and a well-recognized commitment to fair representation for all Californians.
They point out that:
Prop. 11 fails to guarantee diversity among commissioners. In the convoluted process, randomly chosen state auditors pick a nominee pool, and the State Auditor randomly selects most commissioners from it. The results will likely not reflect California's demographics. We move backwards to entrust diversity to a body that is not diverse itself.
Prop. 11 will make it harder to draw districts where under-represented groups can choose candidates of their choice. Each State Senate district would contain two State Assembly districts, "nested" like walnut halves in a shell. But nesting breeds rigidity.
Academic research and past redistrictings have shown that it reduces the flexibility needed for districts that reflect the minority presence. According to a 2006 report from UC Berkeley's Institute for Governmental Studies, nesting would harm Latino voters. Considering demographic trends, Asian Americans will be increasingly at risk.
Prop. 11 will make it harder to comply with the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Nesting raises barriers to compliance. Do commissioners draw a VRA-compliant map first and then try to nest where they can? If so, how? Nesting is a technical snarl likely to create confusion for commissioners.
Prop. 11 relies on an already delicate VRA. Some proponents dismiss the threat to minorities, stating that the VRA would have top priority in the criteria for drawing districts. Yet the VRA itself is under threat. The current Supreme Court may further gut it, and if this safety net breaks, the initiative offers no further protection.
And, as noted, Prop. 11 is an initiative, not a statute, so we could be helpless as its flaws materialize. It could freeze our feet in cement.
Confronted with these problems, many proponents shrug and say that anything is better than the approach that led to the flawed redistricting of 2001. Voters rejected this recipe for trouble in 2005 and it's not the way to make important public policy decisions.
The goal of redistricting should be fair representation for all. Yet Proposition 11 will likely undercut it. For all Californians, this road of good intentions could lead to its classic destination.