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“Safe as in their mother’s arms”: Confessions of a redistricting junkie

One semester in 1978, I was in college and my bank account was getting low.

Unfortunately, at the time, so was my dad’s. So, I went to one of my
professors to inquire about on-campus employment. He steered me to the
organization he ran on the campus, formerly the Claremont Mens College,
called the Rose Institute of State and Local Government. They were embarking
on a new computer application: associating political data (election results)
with geography (a map). They hired me to draw voting precincts on U.S.
Geological Survey (USGS) maps and to find their geographic centers so that
those points could be associated with the corresponding election data. When
lines were drawn around a series of these points, a computer quickly could
add them up.

What I was witnessing was the transformation of the decennial process of
drawing legislative and congressional districts, which has gone from Magic
Markers and adding machines to computer mouse clicks and Pentium processors.

I was hooked.

Trust me, I wasn’t hooked on computers; I still can’t figure them out. What
intrigued me was the numbers behind the lines on the map, and how every two
years people would go to the polls and make decisions based on where those
lines were located. This was the ultimate political-hack high: deciding
where those lines were drawn.

Three years later was the 1981 round of redistricting, and I worked on the
Assembly Republican Caucus redistricting staff. That year, we witnessed the
still memorable press conference where former Rep. Phil Burton revealed his
plan and insisted that many Republican congressmen were “in their mother’s
arms.” It also featured an educational moment when a reporter asked him how
he had drawn his plan. Allow me to paraphrase from my memory:
“I learned how to count in the Boy Scouts. Let’s start with Boy Scout 1. You
start up here in Del Norte County and you add up 1, 2, 3, 4 [he was pointing
to Humboldt, Mendocino and Sonoma counties on the map] Don’s in his mother’s
arms.”

He was referring to Republican Rep. Don Clausen, who lost the 1982 election
to Democratic Assemblyman Doug Bosco by 5,700 votes.

As I remember this, I still get goose bumps. It was awesome then, as it is
now, to be in the presence of a master. Phil Burton knew how to draw
districts that generated a desired outcome. And he did it without using a
computer.

Redistricting is the same now as it was then: You add up people until they
equal the ideal size of a district. The difference is that the tools change
as the technologies change. Redistricters in 2001 used desktop computers
that quietly hummed under our desks. In 1981, the computer fit in a room the
size of my daughter’s bedroom and you could not hear yourself talk because
of the noise. It broke down quite often.

In 1991, the computers were a little better, but the operating systems still
were not capable of handling the massive amounts of political data. I had
to save each change I made in a district I drew, again for Assembly
Republicans, before the computer crashed every five or six minutes. That
year, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and former Governor Pete Wilson gamed
each other into a court-drawn plan that everyone now agrees was faithful to
the principle of keeping cities and counties together, and resulted in a
consistent level of competition throughout the decade.

Through the years the bottom line of redistricting has not changed. It is
still an exercise in simple addition or subtraction. From the perspective of
an incumbent, it is the addition of desirable areas and subtraction of
undesirable ones. From the perspective of good-government purists, it is the
act of counting up neighborhoods and keeping them together on a
clean-looking map that produces competitive districts.

The beauty of the redistricting process cannot be seen through the glare of
a computer screen. It is still lines on a map, and those lines have
consequences, especially for legislators, and that’s why they take the
process so seriously. To them, it’s a matter of life and death for
themselves, their friends, or their enemies.

But, more importantly, redistricting is the way that our system of
government decides how each one of us is represented in what our founders
decided would be a representative democracy. The people of Iowa have decided
that it should be done by a commission, staffed by an office that has
somehow institutionally remained a nonpartisan body. Since its founding,
California has drawn lines in the legislative arena, with the historically
partisan implications inherent in that decision.

Commentators prior to the 2001 redistricting hoped the Legislature would not
engage in a bitter partisan process as they had since the 1950’s. After the
Legislature agreed on a bipartisan plan, they correctly noted that it was a
bipartisan gerrymander, and complain to this day.

Until someone comes up with rational redistricting reform that no partisan
entity attacks, this process will remain as it is. This is because in the
present political climate, the governed do not trust the governors, for any
number of reasons.

Since that first day at the Rose Institute, my mentors taught me that this
is not the best way to draw districts in a representative democracy. But,
until a reform movement was successful in California, this is the way it had
to be done. And somebody has to do it.


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