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Redistricting California Style – Bad Idea Gone Bad (Part 1)

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

This is the first of a three-part series on the redistricting process that was dictated by a Proposition voted by the residents of California to take the politics out of the process.


Aggreived societal interests see a problem – and then develop a solution that’s worse than the problem. Political interests with an agenda are perhaps the worst offenders; nobody is better at crafting legislation that fails to consider all of the side effects. One shining example of this tradition was McCain-Feingold. The newest case of overzealous government reform is the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

As you know, the Constitution requires that the United States perform a census every ten years. The results of the census form the basis of how Congressional seats are apportioned, and are also used by the states to redraw the lines for Congressional, Assembly, and State Senate seats. Each state has its own reapportionment methodology, but these have come under greater scrutiny in recent years because of the preponderance of non-competitive seats.

In California, there has historically been a simple process for redistricting. Henry Waxman and Howard Berman – the state’s two most powerful political figures – would hire Berman’s brother Michael to do the job. Berman negotiated with all the established powers (including Republicans to a limited extent), and then seats were redrawn to appease all the special interests. He took care to comply with federal laws that protect minorities in order to avoid challenges from ethnic group lobbies. Of course, incumbents rarely were defeated, and some went unchallenged. In fact, some districts were so grossly partisan that members of the opposing party often didn’t even mount a campaign.


Stepping into the breach were do-gooder groups such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters funded by Charles Munger Jr. (son of Warren Buffett’s billionaire partner), who in 2008 sponsored Proposition 11 – craftily named the “Voters First Act.” This measure established a commission composed of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four Independents (decline-to-states), who would then work with “strict, nonpartisan rules to ensure fair representation.” Advocates for the Proposition claimed that it would take redistricting out of the hands of politicians in smoke-filled rooms and bring it into the public domain with open hearings and public meetings. Everything would now be posted on the Internet for anyone to review. In fact, the web site’s home page features a bucolic photo montage of hard-working Californians and senior citizens in order to reflect what the ideal process would be.

The voters, of course, never saw anything beyond the boilerplate blurbs in printed handbooks or the ubiquitous 30-second TV and radio ads. In a spasm of euphoria, the people of California passed this Proposition (50.8% to 49.2%). They would now have fourteen “independent and fair-minded” residents to draw their political districts. To ensure the integrity of the panel, members of the commission had to be registered with their political designation for the last five years, not have held political office for the last ten years, and agree to not pursue elected office for ten years going forward. The architects of the Proposition thought that with all these do-gooder ideals, the commission would be a smash hit. In 2010, Proposition 20 was passed overwhelming (61.2%), putting the additional task of apportioning Congressional districts in California in the hands of the fourteen citizen commissioners.


What they seemed to forget was that redistricting is, at its heart, a political process. And, try as you might, you cannot take politics out of it. One might have hoped that the “sophisticates” who drew this up had read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but they were educated in California schools – so who knows what they read. Or perhaps they might be somewhat interested in pop culture and had watched Survivor, but maybe that was too low-brow. Either way, to believe that fourteen people would get in a room without a single political agenda among them can only be described as preposterous.

After the commission’s final results were released, a firestorm exploded when, a truly independent operation that studies issues like this, produced a 14-page analysis detailing how Democrats had gamed the system from the outset. What they found was that Democrats had initially been against the Proposition. After all, they had Michael Berman – who had previously protected their elected officials so impeccably that not one Democratic incumbent had lost an election in the past decade. But Democrats weren’t going to sit on their hands in the face of this new procedure, and so they covertly started a process to protect their interests.

Republicans, on the other hand, sat on the sidelines until the commission was actually seated – and by then the game was over.


ProPublica’s analysis was explosive, but what we found was that the situation was even worse than they described. It was a nightmare of ethnic-driven politics where the interests of Republicans and the residents of California would ironically have been better served by Michael Berman.

Next week, we will detail the sordid story of how the commission made Lord of the Flies seem


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