Mar 24, 2010

Mistake on California's political map*

In his column today, calling for a "A Tea Party Without Nuts," New York Times columinst Thomas Friedman commends the passage of California's Proposition 11 as a way to deal with gerrymandered districts around the country. Unfortunately, he gets the facts wrong.

Here's the erroneous passage:
First, let every state emulate California’s recent grass-roots initiative that took away the power to design Congressional districts from the state legislature and put it in the hands of an independent, politically neutral, Citizens Redistricting Commission. It will go to work after the 2010 census and reshape California’s Congressional districts for the 2012 elections. Henceforth, districts in California will not be designed to be automatically Democratic or Republican — so more of them will be competitive, so more candidates will only be electable if they appeal to the center, not just cater to one party.
Except that Prop. 11 explicitly exempted Congressional districts from citizens' commission oversight. State lawmakers will continue to draw federal legislative districts, and they will continue to cut deals to protect incumbents and maintain the balance of party power in Congress. Prop. 11 only affects state Senate and Assembly districts.

The art of redistricting has gone from art to science in the past two decades, as sophisticated computer models give map drawers the ability to surgically carve up neighborhoods in ways that ensure Democratic districts stay Democratic and Republican districts stay Republican. This not only gives incumbents a great deal of protection in future elections, but keeps the majority party in the majority. Critics complain that the maps starve voters of real choice in elections and create primary election battles that reward the most ideologically pure candidates. Whether Prop. 11 significantly alters the political landscape in California remains to be seen.

Meantime, signatures are being gathered to put a measure on the November ballot to give California's citizens' commission authority to redraw Congressional districts. There's also a campaign being pushed by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Los Angeles, to undo Prop. 11 and put the redistricting back in the hands of the state Legislature.

Things aren't so simple here in California.

*A correction has been appended to Friedman's column:

An earlier version of this column misstated the terms of a recent California initiative. It will reshape districts for the state legislature, not Congressional districts.

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