By Naomi Rodriguez
Politics & Culture Reporter

Fueled by a summer full of budget deadlock, missed payments and partisan loggerheads, many around the state are once again pushing for reform of the dysfunctional California political process. Proposition 11, which would take the powerful redistricting responsibility from the state Legislature and form a new 14-member commission for the task, remains one of the more controversial — and misunderstood — measures on this year’s ballot.

Supporters, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, say this would give the voters more power to decide how their communities will be drawn and represented, while opponents call Proposition 11 a “power grab” that would lead to further underrepresentation of communities.

How It Is

At the beginning of every decade, the federal government conducts a census to assess population growth in the nation. To accommodate changes in population, congressional and legislative districts are then redrawn to maintain an equal number of people in each district. The state Legislature splits the state into 40 Senate districts and 80 Assembly districts, spread among the 58 counties in California.

Critics say that redistricting, which traditionally has been drawn by state legislative leaders, allows legislators to choose their own districts, often resulting in “safe” districts that give incumbent politicians an overwhelming advantage in future elections.

State Sen. Joe Simitian, representative of the 11th Senate District, is running for re-election Nov. 4. If elected, he will be in office when California’s districts are redrawn in 2011.

“Any of us who wants to run for office ought to be prepared to make a race on a level playing field,” Simitian said.

Opponents of Proposition 11 say that legislators who can choose their districts can choose their voters, an inherent conflict of interest.

“Voters ought to choose their elected officials,” Simitian said. “Elected officials shouldn’t choose the voters they want to represent.”

Residents advocating for reform are hopeful.

“If the districts are redrawn, then hopefully there will be more pressure on the incumbents to change their ways,” said Nico Fulgencio, a UC Santa Cruz second-year. “It will let new candidates that better represent their respective areas enter the game too.”

Proponents of Proposition 11 say that because 99 percent of incumbents are re-elected, they have little incentive to meet the demands of residents when they are sure to get back into office anyway.

“Legislators drew the lines literally around their houses. They made sure that they had safe districts,” said Ann Wise, president of the League of Women Voters (LWV), a nonpartisan organization. The LWV has supported Proposition 11 for more than a year because they say it will end the current and inherent conflict of interest.

Wise said safe districts made legislators more passive about the demands of their constituents.

“With safe districts, you elect the most radical Republican and the most radical Democrat,” Wise said. “What happens when they come together? They can’t even talk to each other. They don’t understand each other’s point of view, and with safe districts they don’t have to.”

In California’s 2001 redistricting period, legislators created fragmented communities. For example, Wise lives in Boulder Creek, San Mateo County, which falls in Simitian’s 11th District. District 11 spans three counties, including a third of San Jose. One representative represents Wise and many other residents from there to San Mateo, an hour away.

The number of votes is overwhelmingly located in San Mateo. There are 80,000 residents in San Mateo compared to about 4,000 in Boulder Creek, where Wise resides. The community of Boulder Creek wields far less influence over its elected representative.

“Think about it,” Wise said. “How much do we really have in common with San Mateo?”

Promises and Problems with Proposition 11

Not everyone believes the promises made by Proposition 11. Opponents describe Proposition 11 as a confusing, inefficient, and unfair redistricting reform.

“What this proposition is trying to do is take over redistricting for the benefit of special interests,” said Daniel Hays Lowenstein, a professor of law at UCLA and one of the signers for the arguments against Proposition 11. “It’s almost impossible for any ordinary person or group of citizens to have any influence whatsoever on redistricting under Prop. 11, so it’s really a power grab.”

Roughly $5 million has been poured into the campaign for Proposition 11.

Among the contributors are Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who donated $100,000; real estate developer and potential Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, who contributed another $100,000; $200,000 from former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, a potential gubernatorial candidate, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Bloomberg L.P., who donated $250,000. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest contributor, donating $2.95 million from his own campaign fund.

Proposition 11 is 4,500 words long. Opponents say the proposition’s writing and practice is overtly complicated to prevent voters from interacting in the 12-step process.

The proposed commission will be made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four representatives from other parties. One state auditor, appointed by the governor, appoints three more state auditors. Out of the 60 applicants chosen by the auditors, four legislators can dismiss 24 applicants without reason, leaving a total of 36. It is only after this process that eight are randomly drawn. Those eight then choose the remaining six applicants to join the commission.

The commission pool excludes citizens who have not voted within the last three elections and those who have changed party affiliation within five years. This excluded population is about 750,000 young voters and 3 million occasional voters, half of whom are minorities.

Though proponents of the measure extol the difficulty in voting an incumbent politician out of a “safe” district, opponents point out that commissioners are untouchable to the general public.

“It’s an incredibly complicated process by which the commission gets appointed,” Lowenstein said. “Once they’re in existence, it’s [still] an incredibly complicated process. It’s all designed to be inaccessible to the average voter. Whereas now, if you don’t like the redistricting, you can vote against the people who are responsible for it.”

An appointed commissioner, opponents say, also does not have a stake in public approval as a check on their decisions.

This is compacted by the complicated method in which districts would be redrawn. Should California residents disagree with the commission’s decision, there is no accessible way to address voter’s concerns.

“The current system is accessible to voters,” Lowenstein said. “The ultimate control voters have is you can vote against the legislators if you don’t like the redistricting plan, and that puts pressure on them to be accountable.”

Opponents of Proposition 11 also question the wisdom of adopting a whole new system that few understand.

“Our system is not perfect,” said Paul Hefner, a spokesman for the Citizens for Accountability, a No on 11 group led by Senate President Pro-Tem Don Perata, a Democrat from Oakland. “However, it doesn’t mean we should have a confusing alternative to replace it.”

Qualifications of the Commission

Hefner and other opponents also question the ability of 14 commissioners to represent 58 counties. The 14 could be appointed from anywhere in California if they meet applicant guidelines.

Underrepresentation could become an issue, as it was under Arizona’s redistricting reform, Proposition 106.

Arizona went through redistricting reform in 2006. Common Cause, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization, backed the initiative. The organization has endorsed California’s Proposition 11, as well as similar propositions.

Arizona’s redistricting reform proved to be costly. Arizona paid millions in lawsuits when the commissioners violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by excluding Native Americans and Latinos, who make up 30 percent of Arizona’s population, in the commission.

The court ruled that the commission violated Article II of Arizona’s constitution, which states: “The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government … And the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen’s vote just a effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise.”

As California is a diverse state, it is likely that race will play a factor in how the districts are drawn. Proposition 11 includes no guarantee that the 14-person commission will reflect the diversity of the state, so opponents draw the parallel to the issues of Arizona’s redistricting commission.

“Arizona’s initiative was quite similar to Prop. 11 — using an appointed commission to draw districts just as Prop. 11 does,” Hefner said. “Unfortunately, the reality didn’t live up to the hype. The districts drawn by the commission were tossed out for violating the Voting Rights Act, and were no more competitive than when the districts were drawn by the politicians themselves. Arizona also had eight years of lawsuits as a result of the commission process, and had to pass emergency legislation allocating an extra $1.3 million just to pay lawyers for the commission.”

Arizona’s situation illustrates the fundamental problems that may occur with lack of checks and balances on the commission board.

“It undermines democracy by giving the final say to a commission that is un-elected by the people,” said Pablo Herrera, a resident of Southern California.

Hefner agreed.

He said, “It’s one of those things that has a clever sound bite but doesn’t work in the real world.”