The Jury Talks Back


Propositions 20 and 27

Filed under: California Politics — aphrael @ 3:50 pm

In 2008, the California voters narrowly passed (by a margin of 1.8%) Proposition 11, a sweeping reform measure which denied the state Legislature the power to draw state legislative district boundaries, vesting it instead in a commission comprised of citizen volunteers randomly drawn from a pool created by staffers of the state auditor. (Disclaimer: I was an early applicant for the commission, but failed to make it past the first round).

The proposition was designed to apply only to state legislative offices in order to not draw the ire (and opposition) of the national Democratic party.

Districts created by the Commission would have to respect pre-existing communities of interest, a term which was not defined.

Dissatisfied with the outcome of the election, activists have qualified two ballot measures to change it: Proposition 20, which would give the Commission the added responsibility of drawing Congressional districts; and Proposition 27, which would abolish it.

Proposition 20 would:

(a) take the power to redraw the borders of Congressional districts away from the state legislature and hand it off to the Redistricting Commission;
(b) subject Congressional districts to a higher standard for minimal population deviation than other districts are held to (Congressional districts “shall achieve population equality as nearly as is practicable”, while other districts “shall have reasonably equal population with other districts for the same office”);
(c) define ‘community of interest’ as ‘a contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation';
(d) allow any registered voter to petition and stay implementation of districts if the district map is subject to a referendum;
(e) make a bunch of minor, substanceless wording changes.

Proposition 27 would:

(a) abolish the redistricting commission;
(b) vest the power to draw districts back in the state legislature;
(c) explicitly allow referenda for laws changing district boundary lines;
(d) require districts to be precisely equal in size unless that is mathematically impossible, in which case a variation of no more than plus or minus one person would be allowed;
(e) require districts to minimize the division of cities and counties and prohibiting cities and counties with population smaller than the ideal population of a district from being split (except to achieve population equality or contiguity, or to comply with federal law)
(f) require a broad public hearing process for the legislature to ask for citizen input on district boundaries;
(g) limit the amount of money spent on redistricting to $2.5 million

I voted for Proposition 11 not because I thought it was an ideal solution to the problem of redistricting, but because there is something fundamentally problematic, in my mind, about legislators drawing their own districts. The 2000 redistricting was abominable, a plan whose entire purpose was to protect the incumbents of both parties by drawing districts which were more partisan and therefore more likely to re-elect; preventing a repeat performance is in the interests of everyone in the state.

But the plan itself was problematic, and I understood why many voted against it: in particular, it had conflicting goals – it wanted both to increase the competitiveness of elections and to require that districts be compact and represent definable communities of interest. These are incompatible goals; no electoral district drawn as a subset of San Francisco and the peninsula will be competitive (nor will a district drawn out of the northeast corner of the state), and yet a system which ensures that districts respect communities of interest will draw such districts.

Still, I will be voting against Proposition 20 and Proposition 27.

The case against Proposition 27 is easier to explain.

For one thing, it would jettison the current system without ever giving it a chance to operate; that might be necessary and good if the system in place were clearly a disaster, but it’s really difficult to say that about a system which draws random volunteers, screened for conflicts of interest, and hands them the power to do their best. What we enacted two years ago is as close as it’s possible to get to enpaneling a disinterested jury; until and unless it produces flawed results, it seems worthwhile to give it a try.

But even if the current system were problematic, this proposed system is absurd.

In a world with apartment buildings, drawing district lines with a maximum variance of one person is a statistical improbability. It is a virtual guarantee that all new district plans will be tied up in court, and that the lines will ultimately be drawn by a special master appointed by the Supreme Court – because the state Constitution will be demanding the effectively impossible, and the legislature will be unable to comply. (Similarly, requiring a broad system of public hearings but then limiting expenditures to $2.5 million creates an inherent conflict: holding hearings up and down the state will be expensive).

Worse yet, the measure is fundamentally dishonest. “Our political leadership has failed us”, the findings and purpose section of the initiative says – and it proposes to fix that problem by taking power away from randomly selected citizens and handing it back to the political leadership of the state Legislature. The Findings & Purpose declaration also claims that the current law will enable the creation of severely underpopulated districts reminiscent of the ‘rotten boroughs’ of the past – never mind that the districts created under the current system must comply with Supreme Court rulings on the relative sizes of districts. It also claims that the reason state Assemblymen have a home field advantage when running for the Senate is that current law requires that each Senator represent two Assembly seats – while ignoring the fact that the current districts were drawn under a different law which didn’t require that, which makes it clear that any home-field advantage currently held cannot possibly be the result of that law, which has never yet been acted on or carried into effect.

So: Proposition 27 tries to replace the current (not-yet-used) system with a return to gerrymandering by the legislature, helped along by an all-but-impossible absolute equality provision, and misleading and dishonest justifications.

The previous system was broken; Proposition 27 doesn’t address the things which made it broken.

The current system is untested and worth a try.

And the findings & purpose section of Proposition 27 is so dishonest that its authors shouldn’t be trusted to run a lemonade stand.

My problem with Proposition 20 is subtler, and it boils down to two things:

(a) The Proposition 11 system is untested and, while I believe we should give it a shot, I’m hesitant to give it more power while I’m not yet sure how well it will work. Experimenting can be good; but rushing headlong into adopting the new way of doing things before we even find out the results of the experiment seems unwise.

(b) I think it’s an error for California to voluntarily abdicate its power to effect the composition of the national legislature without other powerful states doing so. It’s tantamount to voluntary disarmament in an arms race; it can only hurt California’s political interests.

I usually find the arguments for and against propositions in the state voter information pamphlet to be useless and unconvincing at best and misleading at worst.

While I’m not going to vote for Proposition 20, I find the argument against it in the ballot pamphlet to be a great example of this: it tells me that Proposition 20 will cost millions of dollars and that I should vote against it for that reason. But this is silly; for one thing, a few million dollars is worth it to get a reasonable redistricting process in place; for another thing, most of the costs of the redistricting commission are fixed, up-front costs; assigning them more responsibility may trigger an incremental cost increase, but that will be tiny compared with the fixed costs already being spent.

Worse yet, it claims that the proposition requires that districts “must be segregated by income level.” But that’s not true; it requires that district lines be drawn to “minimize the division” of “a contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation.” The proposition then goes on to cite as examples “those common to an urban area, a rural area, an industrial area, or an agricultural area, and those common to areas in which the people share similar living standards, use the same transportation facilities, have similar work opportunities, or have access to the same media of communication relevant to the election process.” This isn’t an attempt to segregate by income; it’s an attempt to say, hey, districts should be drawn in a way which maximizes the similarity of social and economic outlook of the voters of that district.

This does seem to me to be inconsistent with one of the premises of Proposition 11 – that the districts should be more competitive. But since Proposition 11 had internally conflicting premises, weakening one of them is probably a good thing overall … and even if it isn’t, the argument against seriously mischaracterizes it.


  1. These are incompatible goals; no electoral district drawn as a subset of San Francisco and the peninsula will be competitive (nor will a district drawn out of the northeast corner of the state), and yet a system which ensures that districts respect communities of interest will draw such districts.

    It will increase the competitiveness of elections in that the districts will be compact.

    San Francisco itself can be divided into two congressional districts (with each district having half a million people). While two rectangular-shaped districts containing San Francisco will not be competitive, it will be more competitive than if the districts were drawn to maximize the number of voters from a particular party.

    It will be the districts in the “borderlands”, so to write, that will be competitive, such as districts near Livermore and Gilroy (to use two examples of communities within one hundred miles of San Francisco)

    Comment by Michael Ejercito — 10/29/2010 @ 7:33 pm

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