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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Brave New World: Changing the Way We Draw the Political Map - Redistricting and Multi-Member Districts

(Please see below for useful links to more information on redistricting.)

Redistricting fever is sweeping the nation.

Tom DeLay's successful plan to redraw the legislative and congressional districts in Texas has opened up the eyes of partisans all across the country to the possible advantages to be gained from redrawing a state's districts. (See Derek's column on redistricting)

Incumbent legislators have used the process to create near-unbreachable strongholds of power. The people are fed up.

A little background
Different states draw their districts in different ways. Some states use a commission for this task; in most states the legislature draws the districts. This normally occurs every ten years, after the decennial census, when the seats in Congress are reapportioned to the states to reflect changes in population.

California, 2005
In California, the state legislature draws the districts and the governor approves or rejects the plan. The undefeated 2001 Sitting Officials Stay in Office (SOSO) plan was drawn up by Democratic and Republican legislators alike and signed by former governor Grey Davis.

Governor Schwarzenegger has made changing the way districts are drawn a key component of his agenda for 2005. The incumbent parties' perfect 153-0 record in the 2004 elections under the SOSO plan makes it difficult to argue otherwise. Something is clearly broken. With most rational minds in agreement that some change is necessary, the question has become what changes to the SOSO plan should California make. In other words: what is the best process for drawing districts?

Interests We Want to Reflect in Drawing Districts
Before we can adequately answer that question, it makes sense to think about what goals we want to our process of drawing districts to meet. Generally, those criteria are:
1) Accurate representation of political viewpoints with fairness for both majority and minority positions -- any plan of drawing districts should result in a legislature which looks like the people it represents.
2) Competition -- encourages debate, accountability, and citizen participation .
3) Maintain geographic communities -- a city or county should not be split up among five different representatives if possible (with an obvious exception for big cities or counties like Los Angeles or San Francisco, each of which alone have multiple representatives.)

There are other interests at stake, but these three criteria should be the focal point for any system.

Balancing Those Interests
Sometimes, those interests will conflict. Increasing our focus on one factor often requires a trade-off with another factor. It is tough to draw competitive districts in Dem-heavy San Francisco or Republican-heavy San Diego County for example, without branching out beyond the borders of those areas, which can diminish the accuracy of the representation. In many cases, we are forced to choose between uncompetitive geographically compact districts and bizarro configurations that remind us more of modern art than democracy but which are more competitive. So how do we balance interests that sometimes conflict?

The answer is that thinking within the box of single-voter districts is not going to achieve real competition or accurate representation. We need a system of larger districts that elect several representatives in proportion to the political makeup of the voters. Arnold is not really changing anything, unless he blows up the boxes of single-member districts.

Multi-member Districts: As Good As It Gets
As a recent report by the Center for Governmental Studies and Demos states, multi-member districts lessen the need for dramatic tradeoffs between the various factors we want to consider. Multi-member districts just means that instead of a bunch of districts each represented by one legislator, there are a fewer number of districts, which are larger and which have several representatives. In other words, instead of fifty districts with one legislator, there are ten districts, each with five legislators. (just an example)

Multi-member districts reduces the need to make the kinds of tradeoffs mentioned above by increasing the size of the districts while allowing various groups to be represented within the district.

(See Fairvote.org for more info on multi-member districts.)

Examples:
-A San Francisco-based district might also include some more conservative areas across the bay or in Silicon Valley, and would likely have a progressive Democrat, a couple moderate Democrats, a Republican, and a seat up for grabs.
-An Orange County-based district might include more liberal areas like Santa Ana, and would likely have a conservative Republican, a couple moderate Republicans, a moderate Democrat, and a seat up for grabs.

With multi-member districts, voters are not presented with the typical all-or-nothing choice, but rather have a host of voices to choose from, a good thing for the competition of ideas that a democracy should foster.

How to Draw Multi-member Districts That Are Competitive and Representative
The best way to draw these districts is an independent commission to recommend redistricting plans to the voters or their elected representatives.

Who:
The members of the independent panel should be drawn from pools of ordinary citizens, much like jury pools. If we trust ordinary citizens to judge the guilt or innocence of their fellow Americans all the time, many times with life or freedom in the balance, we can trust each other to draw districts. Past or future politicians and relatives should be excluded from this pool, for the same reason that we can't trust the Legislature to draw fair districts.

How: These citizens should consider the factors listed above. In order to maintain the electoral accountability that democracy demands, their plan should be ratified by either the legislature or by citizens through the initiative process.

LINKS
Studies:
Drawing Lines: A Public Interest Guide to Real Redistricting Reform, by Center for Governmental Studies and Demos -- provides information and analysis on redistricting in California; evaluates three separate proposals in light of proposed criteria.

Information:
California Redistricting Initiatives and Proposals, by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley -- with links to initiatives and proposals, background on redistricting in California, news articles, and opinion.

Initiatives Filed with California Attorney General, the official website of the California Attorney General.

California Political District Maps, the California Voter Foundation has the 1991 and 2001 maps.

Columns:
Redistricting Mania, a column by Derek Cressman

Redistricting reform: Big noise for small potatoes, by Peter Schrag in The Sacramento Bee

Schwarzenegger vs. Gerrymander, by Steven Hill in The New York Times

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