Wednesday, September 07, 2005

National Redistricting Update - OH, CA, FLA

Redistricting - the process of redrawing of a state's legislative and congressional districts, normally done after each decennial census to reflect changes in population distribution - is this year's hot democracy topic around the country.

With this week's certification of four reform initiatives in Ohio, redistricting initiatives are currently on this fall's ballot in California and Ohio, and more than 200,000 signatures have been collected thus far in Florida to put a trio of related redistricting initiatives on the 2006 ballot in that state. The general question posed is generally this: should politicians be allowed to draw their own districts, or should the job be placed in the hands of an independent commission?

The drawing of districts has traditionally offered large opportunities to game the system to benefit either a particular legislator (Massachusetts' Elbridge Gerry, the namesake of gerrymandering being a prime example) or party (California Democrats and Ohio Republicans being two current examples). By lumping more or less of a particular demographic into a district, the party drawing the district can essentially handpick the make-up of the voters in a district, enabling them to shift power in a state legislature or in a state's congressional delegation. Recent technological advances have refined the process with highly precise data on voter registration and preference.

Because legislative and congressional districts are redrawn every ten years, redistricting has major implications at the state and federal level, and faces strong opposition in the form of lawsuits, huge warchests, and partisan potshots from those in power. In California, Ohio, and Florida, politicians have drawn districts which have very nearly drained all competition out of races, creating virtually impregnable fiefdoms for incumbents.

Secretary of State Blackwell certified all four Reform Ohio Now initiatives (campaign finance reform, redistricting, election administration, and absentee voting) this week for this fall's ballot. The redistricting initiative - State Issue 4 - would create an independent five-member commission to draw the state's legislative and congressional districts, which are currently drawn by the Ohio Apportionment Board and Legislature respectively.

The initiatives still face a legal challenge from Ohio First, a group headed by a lobbyist and former president of the state senate and bankrolled by unknown financial backers. Attorney General Jim Petro has signed on to the lawsuit, which claims that out-of-state circulators cannot collect signatures for constitutional amendments in Ohio.

The A.G. has joined forces with Ohio First despite never raising the out-of-state circulator complaint with other initiatives, despite the opinions of the last two Secretaries of State to the contrary, and despite the fact that his joining the suit has created a conflict of interest which prevented him from representing the Secretary of State in the lawsuit. Arguments on the case are due to be hard in court tomorrow.

Proposition 77, which puts a panel of retired judges in charge of drawing California's legislative and congressional districts, is back on the ballot. In August, the California Supreme Court restored Prop 77 to this fall's ballot, reversing the rulings of two lower courts. The lower courts had thrown Prop 77 off the ballot because its drafters - The People's Advocate - had mistakenly circulated a different version than the version that was certified by the Attorney General. (See the court order here.)

Two California Congressmen - Reps. John Doolittle (R-Roseville) and Howard Berman (D-Hollywood) - successfully petitioned the Federal Elections Commission for an advisory opinion stating that they can raise unlimited funds to oppose Prop 77. (See FEC Commissioner Thomas's dissent here.) A bipartisan gerrymander after the last census resulted in none of California's 153 legislative and congressional seats switching party hands in 2004. Despite a federal law and past FEC advisory letter to the contrary, incumbents Berman and Doolittle can now raise big bucks to protect their seats.

A bipartisan Florida coalition is gathering signatures on a trio of redistricting initiatives to put them on the 2006 ballot. The initiatives would provide a set of criteria/standards for redistricting, create an independent panel to draw the districts, and redraw districts prior to the 2009 elections.

Recently, the Florida Secretary of State decertified the initiative which sets the redistricting standards because its ballot summary contains 81 words - Florida only allows 75 words in constitutional amendment initiatives. The coalition plans on fighting the Secretary of State's decision in court.

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