The Twin Battle Over Redistricting 

Proposition 20 would expand the powers of a new independent panel, but Prop 27 would hand redistricting authority back to politicians.

Just two years ago, Californians approved a sweeping political reform measure known as Proposition 11. The law was designed to lessen partisanship in Sacramento by stripping the power of drawing legislative districts from politicians and giving it to an independent commission. Prop 11 will take effect next year with the release of the once-a-decade US Census. But state legislators are working hard to kill the reform measure before it even begins with a new statewide measure this November — Proposition 27. It would immediately return redistricting powers to politicians.

Proposition 27 is strongly opposed by numerous good government groups, including the League of Women Voters of California and California Common Cause. They argue that going back to letting politicians gerrymander their own districts is a huge mistake, and that the independent commission should be allowed to do its job. "The process is extremely open and transparent," said Sharon Byrne, deputy director of California Common Cause, referring to the independent commission. "There's not going to be any backroom deals."

For decades, state legislators have been using redistricting to maintain the status quo. Historically, they've drawn districts to be predominantly Democratic or Republican. The result is that legislators tend to be very liberal or very conservative, making compromises in Sacramento nearly impossible. The rise of the Tea Party has made the problem particularly acute in conservative districts. The independent commission, with five Democrats, five Republicans, and four independents, is designed to blunt such extreme partisanship.

But legislators, not surprisingly, are not happy about losing their authority, particularly Democrats. As the ruling party in California, they have more power to decide how districts are drawn. So Democratic legislators and public employee unions have poured millions into the Yes on 27 campaign.

Prop 27 also is supported by various groups who worry that the independent commission may not have their best interests at heart. They note that drawing districts can be tricky, particularly so as not to break up ethnic minority voting blocs and thus diminish their influence. "The current system is not perfect, but if you put a commission in its place, it won't be perfect either," said Aubry Stone, president of the California Black Chamber of Commerce.

Proposition 20, by contrast, would extend the power of the independent commission to congressional districts. It's also backed by good government groups, including California Common Cause and the California NAACP, who argue that the problems in Congress mirror those in Sacramento. "They all have safe seats," said Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, referring to members of Congress. "They don't have to worry about being effective legislators. They have to worry about doing the bidding of special interests."

But many opponents of Prop 20 contend it's premature to expand the independent commission's authority before it's had a chance to prove its effectiveness. Some prominent environmental groups also are concerned that the independent commission won't take environmental issues, such as the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, into account when drawing congressional lines. "There's been a congressional district that has represented most of the Delta for a long time, and the political representatives from that district are really the only reason that the Delta is still there," said Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club.

If both Prop 20 and 27 pass, then the measure with the most votes takes effect.

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