Saturday, June 11, 2011

Redistricting in California

The work of the California citizens redistricting commission, which just released its first draft maps of new Congressional and state legislative districts, gives everyone a chance to reflect on just what the right to vote truly means. The commission based its work on a different set of priorities from those the legislature has used in the past for drawing district lines. Instead of protecting incumbents, the commission has tried to maintain the integrity of communities, however those might be defined. That seems like an important shift, since it speaks to the rights of voters, rather than the job security of legislators. But it's also very complicated to try to figure out how best to protect the rights of voters. Some voters might even think they are best served by being represented by a very experienced legislator who doesn't have to worry too much about raising money for re-election, and who has a lot of clout by virtue of seniority. Putting a lot of seats in play, which will likely result from re-districting, raises the danger of subjecting representatives to the corruption of money. On the other hand, these new districts may empower more voters to affect the outcome of elections, and that is a big gain for democracy.

Early reaction so far, as might be expected, focuses on the likely political outcome of these new district lines--whether Democrats will gain more seats, whether Latinos will gain or lose representation, etc.  Those are important questions, but they miss the point of the whole citizen re-districting process. We should pay less attention to those kinds of outcome questions, and more attention to whether the new district lines will empower more voters.  The goal should be to allow each and every voter to exert some influence on the political process, as well as to be represented by someone who will be responsive to some extent to their concerns. Not necessarily that every voter will be able to elect a representative from their party, or from their ethnic group (that is of course impossible in any districting system) but that each voter has the sense that they can have some impact on the selection of candidates and representatives. That is not only the appropriate goal under political theory, but is also the appropriate legal standard under the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. (I actually studied this area extensively in law school.) That goal becomes more attainable when we understand that we can't view the composition of the electorate in simple two party terms, whether that means Democrat or Republican, or black and white, or whatever sort of us vs. them composition might make sense in each district. There are a lot of political independents who don't fit comfortably in either party; and there are many gradations of ideology within each party; and there are ideas of representation beyond ideology. So, for example, in a district with a majority of Democrats, but with a heavily Latino population, the Republican Party might still succeed sometimes in winning an election by running a Latino candidate. Or in a district with a large proportion of independents, both the Democrats and the Republicans might have more success in running more moderate candidates. By forcing those kinds of calculations, all voters in a district can gain a feeling of influence.

The first thing I did when I saw these district maps, as I'm sure many California residents did also, was to look at what happened to my Congressional district. The change is dramatic. If my district were a dog, I live near the end of its tail. The dog's body is in South-Central LA. Which might explain why I used to be represented by Diane Watson, and now by Karen Bass. Years ago, this same part of town was part of Henry Waxman's district on the West Side of LA. Next year, however, it looks like the tail will be chopped off and attached to another district based in east LA, which means that it is more likely I will be represented by a Latino congressman. Does it matter? What is so interesting is that you can draw the lines in so many different ways to connect my family to the black community or the Latino community, or the Jewish or Korean or Armenian or some combination of all of the above. I haven't moved in 20 years, but my district has shifted from West LA to South LA, and is now heading to East LA. Will my vote count more or less in the new district? Too soon to tell.

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