Jonathan Walters is the Executive Editor of GOVERNING. He has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.E-mail: Jowaz22@gmail.com
It’s the decennial exercise in political shenanigans that for eons has vexed reformers: state and federal legislative redistricting. Ever since former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry invented his now-infamous “Gerrymander” on Boston’s North Shore, state legislators and governors have, with new census data, exhibited a sort of free-form artistic creativity that would be the envy of the most talented avant-garde abstract painters.
And so the question remains: How can redistricting be handled in a way that at least blunts the worst of that creativity? That is, can district lines be drawn so that they are not stretched across implausible geographical boundaries in order to tilt the political balance of power in a particular district in favor of Democrats or Republicans?
Two interesting experiments in reform are pending, although neither carries any guarantee of success. The first -- California’s Proposition 11 -- is garnering the most initial attention. Passed in 2008, the proposition creates a 14-member citizen commission overseen by the state auditor’s office that will handle the job of drawing up state legislative districts, taking the whole process out of the hands of politicians.
The way the commission is chosen is diabolically clever and convoluted. The method was designed with the assistance of the citizens’ lobby organization, California Common Cause, and complexity was built into it to defy politicization. At the same time, there’s been plenty of citizen enthusiasm about joining the commission’s ranks. “We thought we might get 500 or 1,000 applicants,” says Kathay Feng, executive director of Common Cause California. “We got 30,000.”
Whether Proposition 11 is allowed to work its prospective apolitical magic, however, depends on what happens this Election Day. Two ballot initiatives will be voted on -- they will either expand Proposition 11’s reach or kill the idea altogether. Proposition 20 will extend the commission’s jurisdiction beyond just state legislative districts to congressional districts. Proposition 27 -- which is backed by the California Congressional Delegation -- will rescind Proposition 11 altogether.
But if citizen commissions can’t play in the fields of redistricting, there will at least be more opportunity for a hot stove-style approach. The second reform idea involves the simple application of a little sunlight. That is, it would allow regular people to use Web-based tools and their computers to come up with their own plan for a state’s legislative and congressional electoral boundaries. That means for the first time in any redistricting cycle, citizens will be able to weigh in with their ideas on what maps should look like.
There will be no weight of law behind it, but through websites like Dave’s Redistricting App, posted on Gardow.com, anyone with a computer can play governor. Players choose their state and get to use speculative U.S. Census Bureau data to make their moves.
Meanwhile, the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute are pushing states to put their own redistricting plans online and allow citizens to participate in the process. States haven’t proved to be overly excited about the prospect, citing costs.
Proponents of these citizen-participation efforts hope that they will at least get citizens tuned into the importance of what’s now considered an opaque and arcane practice. Maybe, given more citizen awareness, the efforts could spur politicians to be less brazen in their political artistry.
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