Election 2010: Beware the Gerrymanderati, Props 20 and 27

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Few things in legislative craft are as easy to dislike or as difficult to eradicate as the gerrymandered district. A basic tenant of the American democratic ideal is that the last safe seat should have been the one held by the Kings George, First, Second, and Third.

It is not so in practice: safe seats—oftentimes gerrymandered—are the norm, at least in California. In California elections since the last redistricting (2002), there have been 692 races for state senate or assembly or federal congressperson. An astounding 687 (99.3%) resulted in a return of the same party to the seat. Although term limits denied reelection to some individual officeholders, one party was able to wrest a seat away from the other party only 5 times.

This was never supposed to happen. When the founding fathers designed our system of government, the legislature was supposed to be so close to the people that it would shift with their every mood, even if turbulent or Tea Party-esque. Alexander Hamilton feared this and wanted senators appointed for life (he also wanted a king), but was overruled by the majority.

A few years ago I attended a Visalia forum for candidates who hoped to represent California’s 34th Assembly district. One candidate came from Lone Pine. As the crow flies that is only about 80 miles, but no respectable crow would fly it and no road braves it, for it requires going over the backbone of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with its passes between here and Lone Pine up at about 12,000 feet. The candidate from Lone Pine had to drive some 235 miles and travel through two other assembly districts to get here.

When I study the outlines of my district, its geographic center seems to be in empty desert, about 20 miles north east of Calico Ghost Town, roughly 220 miles from my home, or four hours by car. I believe
half that distance would take me to the center of four or maybe five other assembly districts. I am disenfranchised because my assemblyperson must drive for seven hours to get from one end of her district to the other, while some of her peers can do the same in 45 minutes. This means that my representative is left with less time to devote to representing me, simply because of the gerrymander.

But worse, if 99.3% of elections serve to maintain the status quo, every voter is disenfranchised, because every legislator is allowed to get comfortable, unless they so anger voters from their own party as to bring on a contested primary.

Voters thought they had changed this for state races with Prop 11, in 2008. Many voters hoped this year’s Prop 20 would extend the correction to congressional districts. The gerrymanderati countered with Prop 27, which would undo Prop 11 and save the safe seats.

Any reader who has come this far knows where my sympathies lie on these two propositions. However, in poking around on the Web, I first got swept away by websites devoted to the weird shapes of gerrymandered districts, and then by a couple of names that jolted me back to some foreboding memories from my youth.

In 1971, I took a part-time job as a custodian for a rundown strip-mall in Van Nuys. It was the perfect set-up for a UCLA student, $200-a-month for odds and ends I could fit around my class schedule. The downside was the creepiness of the people I was working for. I never passed by my boss’s office without wondering if I was working for Mafia dons. I never saw the boss and his brother together without the feeling they were plotting to take over the world. I stuck out the year, graduated, and quit.

It turns out I was half right. They were not Mafia dons. They
were plotting to take over the world. And they have been remarkably successful at doing so. Before I had ever even seen a computer, Michael Berman understood that it could be used to assemble mailing lists of niche interest groups that would allow politicians to target a large collection of small audiences with sometimes contradictory promises. Then, computers could facilitate the otherwise tedious process of drawing gerrymandered districts. His methodology became the fountainhead of Democratic successes from Willie Brown to Nancy Pelosi, and propelled his brother Howard to chairmanship of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. As one article explains, by following the money, it becomes evident that Prop 27 is largely inspired for protecting Howard Berman’s funny-shaped (my Rorschach results: Frankenstein on skis) district, to the larger end—through his chairmanship—of protecting Israel. (Full disclosure: like many Evangelicals, I am highly favorable toward American support of Israel, though I would like to see it accomplished by way of honest elections.)

I do not get to vote in Mr. Berman’s district (though my assembly district nearly curves around to the other side of it). But I do get to vote against this kind of districting. In an earlier endorsement, I said I would support Prop 25 (to pass the budget by simple legislative majority) only if it came as a package with Prop. 20. As it stands now, the two-thirds majority is necessary because 99.3% of our elections serve to protect safe seats.

I will watch the polls until the last minute. If Prop 20 looks like it will win, and Prop 27 looks like it will lose, then and only then will I vote for Prop 25.

Note: Connie Conway is the assemblyperson in my safe-seat Republican district. I’ve followed Connie since she succeeded her father as county supervisor. I am happy with her and would probably vote for her even if she had a serious challenge.

*These numbers come from a Visalia Times-Delta editorial that gave no further source.

Map of Howard Berman's district

Try this for fun.


I hope this comes out right, but here it is.

Jerry Brown stated in an interview that he lied to become governor. He stated that everybody lies. He further states that things were worse after he left office. Most important, he showed no remorse! Now his ads are stating the opposite of what he stated in that interview, by lying about his record.

On more than one occasion he has written misleading definitions to proposition and was required by a judge to changes those definitions. I just learned that he defied a judge's order and did not make those changes.

He has use his current power "POWER" to sue counties over AB32, even though it has not gone into effect.

He has labeled himself a lire and He has abuse his power, at the same time, he will not defending the will of the people.

None of the above would be better that voting for Jerry Brown.

robert h said...
November 1, 2010 at 9:09 PM  

I think your comment goes with my other post, but I know how tricky it is to remember what window is open.

As the election results trickle in, it looks like Brown has won by more than the margin of those who visited here. If Brown turns out to be horrible, I guess I can at least share the blame.

Now we'll just have to see what happens.

Thanks for dropping by.

Brian said...
November 2, 2010 at 9:41 PM  

Brian, congrats on winning Prop 27 (and keeping Prop 11). I too support independent redistricting, although the model set up in Prop 11 and Prop 27 is, I fear, doomed to fail. Prop 11's commission has already run out of money, and each commission requires a high enough vote threshold to pass a plan that it is likely the commissioners will be unable to come to a conclusion. If they do manage to pass a plan, the details of Prop 11 and 27 mean that many groups will likely challenge aspects of the plan via lawsuits. I suspect this process is bound to end up in the courts. Luckily that's where I prefer it go; the redistricting done by the California Supreme Court in 1990 was by most accounts sensible and fair. If that happens again I won't shed any tears.

I liked your story about observing the early years of Michael Berman's rein as California's behind-the-scenes redistricting guru. The significance of your map of Howard Berman's District, however, is better illustrated by Brad Sherman's 27th District, which surrounds it - mapped here: http://bradsherman.house.gov/district/district-map.shtml. Thanks for writing about this important subject.

Damian said...
November 5, 2010 at 5:05 PM  

Thank you, Damian, and congratulations to those of you in leadership positions in the California Democratic Party, who came out looking pretty good on a night the party took a beating across most of the rest of the country. I actually voted for two Democrats (Brown and Torlackson) this time, surprising even myself.

Sherman's district is, indeed a great illustration, but raises a question: why would one Democratic district be carved to fit like a glove around another Democratic district? Is one designed to be safer than the other? Or are each designed to fit the personality of the specific congressman?

Brian said...
November 6, 2010 at 9:26 PM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Damian said...
November 13, 2010 at 6:47 PM  

The districts were designed so that there would be a minority of Latino voters in each of them, instead of a majority in one District. This allowed two white Jewish Congressmembers to be elected in a heavily Latino area.

Damian said...
November 13, 2010 at 6:49 PM  

Of course. It's been a long time (1972) since I lived in the valley, but I wondered if perhaps ethnicity had something to do with the funny shapes. Somebody should have sued over these two districts. It seems to me a jury could have found that there was conspiracy to defraud the Hispanic community of their voting rights. Thanks, Damian, for connecting the dots.

Brian said...
November 13, 2010 at 8:03 PM  

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