Redistricting: An expensive experiment gone wrong

At the conclusion of the first phase of California’s costly new scheme to draw legislative maps last week, State Auditor Elaine Howle trumpeted the results of her office’s efforts.

“We’ve said all along that this was an experiment in direct democracy,” she said, “and, with nearly 31,000 Californians coming forward to apply, there’s no doubt this experiment was a huge success.”

The State Auditor got one thing right: it was an experiment. A multi-million dollar experiment with a 100 percent cost overrun gone wrong.

Of the 30,720 applications received — a number aided by an expensive last-minute paid media blitz and an extended deadline — nearly 66 percent were from males. More than 71.1 were from white applicants. Meanwhile, just 10 percent were from Latinos (who represent 36 percent of the state’s population) and a mere 4.7 percent from Asians (who represent 12 percent of the state’s population).

These lackluster numbers come despite another round of I-Heart-Redistricting editorials from the state’s leading newspapers and a last-minute outreach campaign to minority communities. It included, according to the Los Angeles Times, reaching African-Americans with outsourced “barbershop and beauty salon outreach” efforts paid for by California taxpayers.

As California Democratic Party Vice-Chairman Eric Bauman noted in a Facebook posting: “The final make-up of the Prop 11 Redistricting Commission applicant pool looks like California in the 1950’s.”.

And there’s no guarantee that the final redistricting panel won’t look the same. way. Diversity language in the law is weak, leaving any plan developed by the commission vulnerable to a Voting Rights Act legal challenge – just as opponents including the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, the Natinoal Congress of Latino Elected Officials, and the NAACP;s Legal Defense arm argued when it went to voters in 2008.

Self-proclaimed “good government” groups shrugged off these concerns, and promised that the process would be free of politics. Yet there was heavily partisan and political involvement in beating the bushes for applications.

Both the California Democratic Party and California Republican Party (as well as the Tea Party) urged their members to apply in email appeals. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers group — via Craigslist — pleaded for applicants sympathetic to its conservative causes to throw their names into the hat. Legislators themselves made pitches on their websites and in email appeals.

Apparently GOP-affiliated groups worked the system harder. Despite being outnumbered by Democrats by about 14 points in voter registration, Republicans have just one percent fewer applicants. (It should be pointed out that in an attempt to win GOP support for the initiative, the drafters gave the same number of votes on the final panel to both parties despite the hefty Republican voter registration disadvantage.)

The fastest growing group of voters in the state also are grossly unrepresented in the applicant pool. Decline-to-State applicants make up12.9 percent of the applications, a far cry from the 20.2 percent of the voters who put themselves in that category.

Meanwhile, while the first phase of the screening process rejected 10 percent of the applicants, a number of politically connected big fish made it thru the net. A quick review of some of the Sacramento area applicants includes: the CEO of the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce (who endorses candidates and has a PAC); the wife of a prominent Democratic political consultant; the Executive Director of the California Farm Bureau (which endorses candidates for the legislature); and former GOP Assemblymember Larry Bowler. In Fresno, a 1994 Republican legislative candidate made the list.

So much for taking the politics out of the redistricting process.

Now what? Three auditors — unaccountable to voters or the legislature — now will pick the semi-finalists in a back room. Not citizens. Not legislators. Auditors.

The three– one Republican, one Democrat, and one DTS voter  — will whittle the applications down to 60 by October 1st. And in true “American Idol” fashion, those applications will undergo further review before a final commissioned is named. (As a side note, it will be interesting to see how many applicants will still be interested after learning that for a not-too-shabby $300 per day, they’ll have to reveal their assets, properties, and gifts on the required Form 700s.)

There’s also no argument about whether the State Auditor’s office excels at what it does. In fact, some say that with billion dollar deficits, the full focus of the office should be rooting out government waste vinstead of trying to create a redistricting commission from scratch.

Which brings us to the staggering costs of this “experiment in direct democracy.”

Despite voters being told in their ballot pamphlets that that the cost would be $3 million, the State Auditor recently went before legislative budgeteers asking them to DOUBLE the appropriation to implement Prop 11 to $6 million.

At a time when children’s health care, funds for in-home support services, and mammograms for low-income are being cut, Budget Chair Sen. Denise Ducheny was right to question the out-of-control costs of this untested process. It remains to be seen what the final number that the Auditor’s Office will receive to do their work.

In any case, the first round of this process has sharpened arguments for a repeal of a process paved with good intentions but fraught with problems. And voters may just have that opportunity: there’s a measure expected to be on the ballot in November that will do just that.

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