Redistricting: Commissioners get down to work

A News Analysis – When the redistricting commission selection process started it was expected to form a group of political professors and non-profit types who would oversee the dry and technical job of drawing districts.  The process seemed rigged against anyone with political experience, ideological agenda, or interest in the limelight.  It would essentially be an oversized jury.  Hearings would be public, but the members would be tight lipped and judicious in their public engagement.

However, like most assumptions about this year’s redistricting process, common wisdom was dead wrong. The commissioners have been everywhere, attending public forums, going to community events, basically hitting the whole redistricting circuit.  It seems like every time the word “redistricting” is on the flyer a commission member will show up.  The joke around Sacramento is that they will soon be doing birthdays and bah mitzvahs.

This past week our commissioners-about-town were hit with criticism about their hiring of line drawers from Berkeley – where even the parking meters are presumed to be registered Democrats.  Justified or not, this was merely a blog posting by a retired Republican consultant on the board of a competing line-drawing organization, and should not have been a blip in the ongoing work of the commission.  The claims were immediately refuted by an equally bloggy Democratic consultant.  That should have been the end of it.

But these commissioners cannot help themselves.  They promptly fought back, meeting with no less than four editorial boards over the weekend, refuting the claims and doing their own PR blitz to right the ship.  

If I was the commission’s political consultant I would get them to shut it all down.  Showing up at organizational events, talking to local reporters, doing the rounds to editorial boards – those may seem like short-term victories, but they are long-term mistakes.

In a few months the first lines will be coming out.  And commissioners may wish for the days when they were only being hit by insider partisan operatives.  Here’s just a sample of what they are likely to face:

Voters have rejected the silly lines and crazy gerrymandering – but the commission admits that some of the most egregious cases of gerrymandering will be grandfathered into their state plan because of the Voting Rights Act.  One picture in the paper of a district that looks like a Rorschach inkblot test and voters will believe that gerrymandering is alive and well.

Californians supported Propositions 11 and 20, wanting better representation, not less.  When voters in San Francisco go from two Senators to one, or when African Americans in L.A. go from three congress members to two, there will be losses of representation among people who finally realize they were the ones benefiting from gerrymandering.  

While cities and counties are expecting to be kept whole in this redistricting process, it is very unlikely that these hopes will be universally met.  There have already been articles about how San Joaquin County is the same size as a congressional district, so it should be one, right?  No county is an island (except in Hawaii where all counties are islands).  When counties and cities are cut up despite their expectations, there will be a lot of unhappy communities pointing fingers at the commission.

And voters will be shocked when they find out that millions of Californians don’t have a state senator for two years because of the little-known “deferrals” that occur when the number for your senator changes, but there isn’t an election for two years.  In 2001 there were 1.5 million deferrals and nobody noticed, this year there could be 5 million, and everyone is going to be talking about it.

These are just the predictable bumps in the road.  And each of these are more of a potential firestorm than the blog postings of a retired political consultant.  

The commission has given themselves a compressed timeline to fully comprehend the Voting Rights Act, conduct extensive outreach with dozens of community meetings, balance the sometimes competing requirements within the state law and ultimately draw 178 new districts that will withstand public criticism and legal challenge. They cannot afford the distractions of the additional PR tours and misguided attempts to contain the blogosphere.  They need to do their work.

In addition, continuing these PR exploits sets an expectation for the future.  A commission that does media tours over minutiae cannot easily turn down media requests to respond to someone losing their Assemblymember or not having any Senator at all.  At that point commissioners will wish they had acted less like politicians, and more like a jury.  

Silence right now would serve them well – and let the results speak for themselves.

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