California Mulls Power to Draw Legislative Districts

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One measure on California's Nov. 8 special election ballot would strip state lawmakers of the power to draw congressional districts and give it to a panel of retired judges. Democrats call it a Republican power grab. But in Ohio, a similar measure is backed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans.


California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to strip state lawmakers of their power to draw congressional and legislative districts. He's backing an initiative in the November 8th special election that would transfer that job to a panel of retired judges. Democrats condemn it as a Republican power grab. In Ohio, a similar measure is on the ballot, but there it's the Democrats that support the move and Republicans are fighting against it. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE reporting:

At a recent campaign forum in the East Bay city of Walnut Creek, Governor Schwarzenegger said, `You only have to look at the results of the last election to know that state lawmakers rig district boundaries to protect themselves and their pals.'

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): Out of 153 congressional and legislative seats last November, none of them changed party.

JAFFE: That was despite Schwarzenegger's best efforts to unseat a handful of Democratic incumbents, said state Senate Leader Don Perata, a Democrat.

State Senator DON PERATA (Democrat, California): And it wasn't really until Governor Schwarzenegger went around the state campaigning, and everybody he campaigned for lost. And I assume that's why he thought the districts weren't fair.

JAFFE: Backers of Proposition 77 say that putting three retired judges in charge of drawing district lines would remove any taint of political gamesmanship. Bill Mundell heads one of the groups backing the measure.

Mr. BILL MUNDELL (Proposition 77 Proponent): What we've experienced in this country is nothing short of a slow-moving coup d'etat by the politicians against the people. And I believe it's a legitimate question to ask how long we can continue to preach a foreign policy about democracy promotion when we don't practice it in some of the largest states in the union, like California and Ohio.

JAFFE: In Ohio, voters decide on Issue 4 next month. It would transfer the power to draw districts from elected officials to an appointed commission. Mundell has been campaigning in both states, along with Issue 4 supporter Richard Gunther, a political science professor at Ohio State University. Gunther says districts that are fixed in favor of one party have denied voters a real choice.

Professor RICHARD GUNTHER (Ohio State University): What that meant in Ohio in the last election is that of the 99 seats for the state House of Representative, 21 of those were uncontested. That's how the Soviet Union used to run elections, and it certainly is not what American democracy ought to be about.

JAFFE: That's an idea that's catching on. In the past year, 20 states have considered measures to change the redistricting process, according to Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Mr. TIM STOREY (National Conference of State Legislatures): And certainly if either Ohio or California are to enact these measures, then it's bound to reverberate across the country and get a lot of attention in other states.

JAFFE: Meanwhile, there are already a dozen states that do not allow their lawmakers to draw their own districts, and five let a commission determine districts for members of Congress. Yet Tim Storey says that doesn't necessarily result in any even playing field.

Mr. STOREY: For example, in Arkansas, the redistricting commission is the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of State, three statewide-elected partisan officials. And, of course, they draw a very partisan map.

JAFFE: Not everyone thinks that Prop. 77 will make the redistricting process less partisan. California Congressman John Doolittle is among the few Republicans here working to defeat the plan to let retired judges draw district lines.

Representative JOHN DOOLITTLE (Republican, California): Anybody who believes that judges are above partisanship just is not in touch with reality. Judges get to be judges one of two ways: Either they run for election to office, or they're appointed by the governor. And both of those are highly political activities.

JAFFE: Politics aside, the initiative could be a nightmare to implement, says Daniel Lowenstein, a professor of election law at UCLA and the head of the No on 77 Committee. If it passes, new districts would have to be drawn in time for the primary next June. Lowenstein says local election officials have used words like `hellacious' to describe how hard it would be to meet that deadline.

Professor DANIEL LOWENSTEIN (UCLA): We could have a close race for governor next year, with Governor Schwarzenegger running for re-election. If we happen to get a really close race, we don't want that to come at the end of a process in which the election officials have been put under so much pressure that they're more likely to have made mistakes.

JAFFE: That worry may be one reason why the latest state poll shows the measure trailing. But Prop. 77 supporter Bill Mundell says redistricting reform is too important to worry about such details.

Mr. MUNDELL: Let us not make perfection the enemy of the good.

JAFFE: There are only a few days left, however, to persuade voters that Proposition 77 is good enough. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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