California's Redistricting Battle on the Ballot

In 2008, California approved a ballot measure to redraw to place an independent commission in charge of legislative redistricting. Depending on what happens at the polls this fall, that commission could see its power expanded or it could be eliminated entirely.
by | June 25, 2010

I'm just now focusing in on the high-stakes battle over redistricting reform that will be playing out on California's ballot this fall.

As you'll probably recall, California voters approved a much-noted initiative in 2008 that placed redistricting of state legislative and Board of Equalization seats in the hands of citizen's commission. Congressional redistricting was excluded from that measure, leaving the legislature in charge of that.

Why overhaul the process for legislative redistricting, but not congressional redistricting? My recollection was that this was a tactical decision. California's Democratic congressional delegation, including Nancy Pelosi, want California's legislature, with its Democratic majorities, to draw their lines. They would have fought hard against an all-encompassing measure. Reformers reasoned that by leaving Congress out of it, they could win at the polls. And, they were right.

But, if there was some uneasy truce between California reformers and congressional Democrats in 2008, it's gone now. One ballot measure would extend the new commission's responsibilities to drawing congressional lines too. Another measure, which counts U.S. Rep Howard Berman as one of its key supporters, would ditch the commission entirely.

On the face of it, you'd expect voters to want to expand, not contract, the commission's powers. Who doesn't like redistricting reform (other than elected officials) and taking power out of the hands of politicians?

However, there's plenty for critics to latch on to in the convoluted selection rules for the commission. What's more, on a fairly obscure issue such as this one, money, just as much as reason, will talk. It's worth remembering that the 2008 measure only passed with 51% of the vote.

With these two measures, California joins Florida as states where reformers are fighting the political establishment over redistricting on the ballot this fall. The situations aren't exactly the same. In California, Democrats want the legislature to maintain power over redistricting. In Florida, Republicans want the legislature to maintain power over redistricting.

That, I suppose, isn't really a difference at all. One reason that independent redistricting has gained relatively little traction is that the minority party is always the only one that favors it.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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