Call it California's Tea Party moment. Nationwide, voter frustration was focused on Democrats in Washington, but in California anti-incumbent sentiment turned to ending gerrymandering and halting the gridlock of perpetually late state budgets.
California voters passed Proposition 20 and shot down its opposite, Proposition 27, finally banning a shady practice known as gerrymandering, which critics call “the perfect crime.” Voters also passed Proposition 25, allowing the legislature to approve budgets with a simple majority rather than a two-thirds vote.
“Voters want politicians out of the business of drawing districts for their friends in Congress,” says Susan Shafer, a spokeswoman for the “Yes on 20, No on 27” campaign.
In 2001, the last time California’s 53 congressional voting districts were reshaped in Sacramento backrooms, gerrymandering guru Michael Berman, brother of San Fernando Valley Congressman Howard Berman, did the job. He was paid $1.3 million, mostly in $20,000 increments from 30 members of Congress.
Michael Berman's task was not to assure that communities of interest were grouped together or that city limits and geographical boundaries were respected. He was hired to make sure that 30 Democratic incumbents couldn’t be ousted by California voters.
In gerrymandering, voters are meticulously segregated by party lines into bizarrely shaped, heavily stacked “voting districts.” The voters are then fed a party incumbent in November. The election is a foregone conclusion long before Election Day.
The scheme, which is banned in every westernized democracy except the United States, has been damned by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Gov. Gray Davis as “politicians choosing their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians.”
California’s 23rd Congressional District, for example, was drawn along a narrow strip of coast running from the edge of Camarillo 200 miles north to San Simeon. Dubbed the “Ribbon of Shame,” the district thins to 100 yards in places and is jokingly said to vanish at high tide. It was drawn solely to slice out more conservative inland areas, thus excising Republican voters.
Because the district is stacked, the 23rd Congressional District Democratic incumbent can't be ousted, and needn’t even compete at election time. Just like the Democratic incumbents, Republican incumbents in California have their own “safe” gerrymandered seats.
California's 120 state legislative seats also were gerrymandered, to the same ends. But in 2008, voters put a stop to that with Proposition 11.
Now, with the passage of Proposition 20, the 120 legislative districts and the 53 congressional districts will be drawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, whose 14 members will be chosen live via random drawing on Nov. 18.
“Some incumbents have fought vociferously to eliminate the citizens' commission,” says Kathay Feng, executive director for California's Common Cause, who strongly backed Proposition 20. “So they must be afraid of something.”
Democratic congressional members Howard Berman, Nancy Pelosi, Diane Watson and Linda Sanchez — and even newbie Karen Bass, who won her “safe” gerrymandered congressional seat on Tuesday — are among the many well-known Democrats who ponied up cash for rival measure Proposition 27, which was defeated by voters.
Proposition 27 was widely decried as an effort to continue fixing elections in California.
“Members of Congress will kill their grandmother for a safe seat,” quips Tony Quinn, co-editor of the nonpartisan California Target Book, “because they hate flying home from Congress [to campaign for votes]. If you're from California, that's at least a five-hour trip.”
But in 2011, the 14-member citizen commission takes over. The commission is being selected through a process that attracted a staggering 31,000 applications from Californians clamoring to be involved in the demise of gerrymandering.
During the last seven months, three auditors narrowed the applicant pool to 60. This month, the four Democratic and Republican leaders of the state Assembly and Senate in Sacramento will eliminate up to 24 of those 60 applicants.
On Nov. 18, a live-streamed, random lotto-style drawing will select eight citizens from the remaining 36 applicants, pulling names from a rotating sphere filled with marked white ping-pong balls.
The eight members chosen that night will in turn choose six final citizens from among the remaining 28, and those 14 will make up the commission.
Not everyone is cheering California voters' decisions. Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, worries about the diversity of the as-yet-unformed commission.
“Californians are frustrated,” she says. “Voters are taking out that frustration, mistakenly thinking that a flawed approach to redistricting will somehow solve all problems in the state.”
In fact, nobody is arguing that banning gerrymandering will topple all the lifelong congressional incumbents underwritten by special-interest riches, or solve the problems in Sacramento.
“Those who are in office still have tremendous advantages, even if the districts are different,” says Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola who specializes in election law. But before, the fix was in long before the election. Now, “Some of the districts will get more competitive.” And certain lifelong members of Congress could finally be vulnerable.
They include incumbent Howard Berman, who assured his re-election by having a voting district drawn up that looks like a man in a scarf wearing a pilgrim hat. Some 100,000 Latino voters were “drawn out” of Berman’s San Fernando Valley district — carefully excised using squiggly lines — and placed in an adjacent voting district.
Jessica Levinson of the Center for Governmental Studies says that under the voter reforms, the citizen commission is likely to create more compact districts that respect community boundaries, adding many or all of the 100,000 Latinos back into Berman's 28th California Congressional District.
Berman then could be challenged by an up-and-coming Latino who lost his or her chance when Berman systematically cleansed his district of Latino voters.
“He's been safe for a very long time,” Levinson says of Berman. “But anybody can be vulnerable when districts are redrawn.”
Although the commission won't arbitrarily cut Beverly Hills or Inglewood in half, many districts it designs will still overwhelmingly favor one party. After all, how many East Hollywood, Echo Park and Silver Lake residents voted for Republican John McCain in 2008?
That said, voter passage of Proposition 20 is a historic reversal. California lawmakers no longer have one of their favorite tools: the power to manipulate the electoral landscape to subvert democratic elections.