Independent redistricting reform sounds like a great idea. It is hard to go wrong when you use the words “independent” and “reform” so close to one another. It is like “apple” and “pie.” They sound fine apart, but put them together and it feels like, “Where have you been all my life?”
Redistricting is the process by which we draw legislative district lines. It may sound less-than-sexy, but it is enormously important and helps to determine who your representatives will be long before you ever walk into a ballot box.
Not surprisingly, when legislators are given the power to draw their own district lines, they tend to do so to ensure that they will keep their jobs and members of their party will do the same.
Sometimes left out of the equation is how district lines will affect various communities. This harms voters. Enter independent redistricting commissions, which take the power to draw district lines out of the hands of lawmakers and put that power in a separate group of citizens. These commissions are growing in popularity, and in many cases, including in California, voters have seen the benefits of independent redistricting.
A recent state law which creates a 14-member commission to draw Los Angeles County’s five supervisorial districts may seem like a good government plan. It is not.
First, lawmakers in Sacramento singled out Los Angeles County for different treatment than any other county in the state. It raises questions about undermining local control whenever a state law targets only one county for special action. Voters in every California county should be worried about the decision of lawmakers in Sacramento to dictate that a redistricting commission must be formed, and how it should be formed in a single county. This was not conceived of and voted on by the voters of Los Angeles County. Nor can it be changed or modified by those voters.
Contrast this with the creation of the independent redistricting commission in California. In 2008 and 2010, California voters passed an initiative which called for the creation of a commission to draw state legislative and then federal district lines. California voters weighed in on have the power to change those measures. Not so for the law calling for the creation of a commission to draw new lines in Los Angeles County.
Second, unlike our state and federal legislative elections, Angelinos elect their enormously powerful supervisors through nonpartisan elections. However, partisan politics could now be infused into those races.
The law requires that the political party affiliation of the redistricting committee must be representative of the political party affiliation of voters in Los Angeles County. This may discriminate against people like me, no party preference voters, who are not members of any political party. No party preference voters make up fully one-fourth of registered voters in the county.
In addition, the law would also act to bar certain experienced consultants from aiding the commission in its work. Drawing district lines is a complex and arduous process, and citizen commissions benefit from experienced experts.
Given these problems, the county of Los Angeles has recently filed a suit.
Independent redistricting is a laudable goal. Vital line-drawing decisions belong in the hands of an independent group of capable citizens. Independent redistricting commissions can keep communities of interest together, increase the responsiveness of elected officials and lead to more competitive elections.
However, independent redistricting only works when we are mindful of the legal and political implications of how we select members of these committees. This law, while it may look like good government reform, is half-baked.
Jessica A. Levinson is a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, and is president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. She tweets at @LevinsonJessica and can be contacted at Jessica.Levinson@lls.edu.