The once-a-decade redrawing of legislative districts has resurfaced now that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has set his sights on reforming the otherwise lackluster issue of redistricting.
I join the governor and many of my colleagues in support of removing this responsibility from the Legislature and assigning it to an independent body, and I have co-written an amendment to do so.
Woven through virtually every poll in recent years gauging Californians’ view of their Legislature is a broad thread of mistrust. The public at large is cynical of the Legislature’s ability to function effectively, pass a balanced budget and focus on necessary, sensible legislation.
Responsibly drawn legislative districts should help to improve both perception and reality regarding the political process.
State and federal district maps were put in place with legislative approval in 2001. They effectively preserve legislative majorities in the Senate, Assembly and Congress and virtually assure re-election of nearly all incumbents.
Although equally apportioned numerically, the maps are drawn by computers to divide the state’s cities, counties and communities into a confusing labyrinth with a goal of establishing district lines with a partisan voter base. This essentially protects a given incumbent or political party from competition in an effort to preserve the status quo.
Apart from this obvious intent, the maps defy logic. For example, the 14th Senate District that I represent encompasses all or parts of six different counties.
However, the lines carefully remove portions of Fresno and skirt around the more populous areas of Modesto, Manteca, Tracy and Stockton. The district overlaps portions of eight Assembly districts and five congressional districts. This not only makes it more cumbersome to coordinate efforts as a regional delegation, but also confuses constituents and local government officials attempting to understand who represents their community and their interests.
Fortunately, in my case, many of the issues and demographics of the current 14th Senate District are similar to those of the district I served previously, so the transition has been smooth. Nevertheless, the overarching system of mapping legislative districts needs to be changed.
Many believe the goal of reforming our state’s redistricting process is to make elections fairer, or to skew elections toward one political party or another. The primary goal of redistricting should be to ensure that the voters have effective representation.
Efficient government starts with citizens having a clear understanding of who represents them. Voters should choose their representatives; politicians should not choose their constituents.
Independent redistricting systems similar to those being proposed are less subject to political influences and have worked well for California in the past. In 1992, after Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the reapportionment plans submitted to him, a three-member committee of judges comprised of “special masters” was appointed to draft a new redistricting plan in accordance with rational guidelines and with public input. Their plan was subsequently approved by the California Supreme Court, with only minor changes made necessary by prior court decisions.
The new districts were coherent, consistent and served the state for nine years. Each Senate district was divided into two Assembly districts. The court affirmed this “nesting” of districts made representation more “comprehensible to the electorate, and (simplified) the task of administering elections.”
Under the current system, multiple legislators potentially competing for higher office in a given Senate or congressional district may be more prone to political infighting and posturing than to district service. Crowding numerous Assembly districts into one Senate district can result in incumbent conduct and decision-making that is motivated by a desire to obtain political advantage over a neighboring legislator rather than being focused on the interests of constituents. Nesting of districts reduces those tendencies, promoting discipline and greater emphasis on cooperative district representation. To the degree possible, nesting of districts should be deemed a priority.
Assigning the duty of drawing legislative district lines to a panel of highly respected retired judges, as some of my colleagues and I have proposed, is a far better alternative than the current politically charged process. The ultimate goal of redistricting reform should be to ensure a more personal connection between the residents of every community and those elected to serve them.
State Sen. Chuck Poochigian, R-Fresno, is a member of the Senate Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments Committee and co-author of a constitutional amendment on redistricting reform.