Sunday, June 12, 2011

The coming shift in California politics, or maybe politics as usual?

In the June 2012 primary election Californian's have a chance to significantly alter their state government.

Some think that the voters made a significant change when they approved the California Top Two Primaries Act in June 2010 and the Voters FIRST Act in November 2008. Maybe. But what we do in June 2012 will determine whether we have the ability as rational voters to take advantage of the changes or whether existing interest groups will just simply adapt to effectively keep things pretty much the way they are.

The 2010 Top Two Primaries Act requires that candidates run in a single primary open to all registered voters, with the top two vote-getters meeting in a runoff. That seems radically different than having candidates run in party primaries with the winners in each party meeting in a general election.

I'm not so sure we Californian's have the political capacity to make this work for us. It isn't radically different from the recall election process that gave us Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. And the first tests of the process in April didn't seem to offer much promise.

But one year from now we have a chance to make the two Act's work for us at the same time to create a viable State government.

The 2008 Voters FIRST Act established the Citizens Redistricting Commission giving it, not the Legislature, the task of handling reapportionment of State Legislative Districts in 2011. In November 2010 the voters added Congressional Districts to the task.

Last Friday the Commission released the first draft of the 80 State Assembly Districts of about 465,674 people, 40 State Senate Districts of about 931,349, and 53 Congressional Districts of about 702,905.

Whatever else one can say about the results, the Commission did its job as outlined in the Act:
The commission shall establish single-member districts for the Senate, Assembly, Congress, and State Board of Equalization pursuant to a mapping process using the following criteria as set forth in the following order of priority:

(1) Districts shall comply with the United States Constitution. Congressional districts shall achieve population equality as nearly as is practicable, and Senatorial, Assembly, and State Board of Equalization districts shall have reasonably equal population with other districts for the same office, except where deviation is required to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act or allowable by law.

(2) Districts shall comply with the federal Voting Rights Act (42 U.S.C. Sec. 1971 and following).

(3) Districts shall be geographically contiguous.

(4) The geographic integrity of any city, county, city and county, local neighborhood, or local community of interest shall be respected in a manner that minimizes their division to the extent possible without violating the requirements of any of the preceding subdivisions. A community of interest is a contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of its effective and fair representation. Examples of such shared interests are those common to an urban area, a rural area, an industrial area, or an agricultural area, and those common to areas in which the people share similar living standards, use the same transportation facilities, have similar work opportunities, or have access to the same media of communication relevant to the election process. Communities of interest shall not include relationships with political parties, incumbents, or political candidates.

(5) To the extent practicable, and where this does not conflict with the criteria above, districts shall be drawn to encourage geographical compactness such that nearby areas of population are not bypassed for more distant population.

(6) To the extent practicable, and where this does not conflict with the criteria above, each Senate district shall be comprised of two whole, complete, and adjacent Assembly districts, and each Board of Equalization district shall be comprised of 10 whole, complete, and adjacent Senate districts.
The problem facing anyone with this job is the complexity of creating 80 Assembly Districts of approximately the same size regardless of criteria used, but when you are told not to consider political parties, incumbents, or political candidates it is actually harder - it's easier to create boundaries with the sole objective to assure the reelection of incumbent office holders.

The point is to get rid of Districts that look like this District (click on the image to see a larger version):

The current State Senate District on the left puts together the people of these two communities:
  1. Compton (indicated by the marker near the top right), incorporated in 1889, has a mostly lower income population of 96,455, is still often thought of as a primarily black community though Latinos are the largest ethnic group in a city that used to be notorious for gang violence, primarily caused by the Bloods and the Crips, plus SureƱos gangs that are allied with the Mexican drug cartels, though latest reports show that Compton's violent crime rate has been reduced by 30% over the last ten years due to significant efforts of the population to reduce crime.
  2. Palos Verdes Estates (on the ocean), incorporated in 1939, is a high-end residential community of 13,438 (mostly white) with no traffic lights and relatively limited commercial shop areas masterplanned by the noted American landscape architect and planner Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., which regulates community aesthetics and architecture through an Art Jury, a non-governmental organization which must approve any exterior alteration to any building, fence, sidewalk, or other structure; most residences and business buildings within the city limits have uniform Mediterranean red ceramic tile roofs and often feature architecture with column and arch motifs, resembling European coastal communities; a substantial amount of land in the community is planned and dedicated as undeveloped open field habitat, an extensive system of hiking trails, and road bike lanes and mountain bike trails with equestrian facilities and horse trails are nearby.
The new proposed new Senate District including Compton includes many communities of people of mostly similar ethnic and economic makeup. And the proposed new Senate District including Palos Verdes Estates looks like this (click on the map to see a larger version):

The proposed district includes coastal communities but the boundary had to wrap inland to get enough people - it includes Beverly Hills not Compton.

Was this a perfect solution? Given the criteria to place together populations which share common social and economic interests, in which the people share similar living standards, use the same transportation facilities (limo's), have similar work opportunities, or have access to the same media of communication relevant to the election process, one can say it is as near to perfect as one can achieve.

The process is not without results that are imperfect. It's interesting to examine the North Coast, the area that is currently contained in Assembly District #1 and California Congressional District #1. The graphic below indicates how the current Assembly, Senate, and Congressional districts compare with the proposal click on the map to see a larger version):

What you discover is that the current Assembly District and the proposed Assembly District are similar though the latter is geographically larger because of population shifts in California.

Then you notice that the current Senate and Congressional districts wander over to an area around Sacramento while the proposed districts continue down the coast line to the Golden Gate, including Marin County.

One could argue that Crescent City residents might have more in common as with those in rural parts of the Sacramento Valley than with those in wealthy Marin, but in fact when one moves progressively from the south end of the proposed new Senate District, many Marin residents have much in common with many Sonoma County residents who have much in common with many Mendocino County residents who have much in common with many Humboldt County and Trinity County residents, who have much in common with Del Norte County residents.

The Senate and Congressional Districts containing Marin residents will change substantially:

Whoever designed the current Marin districts did something "interesting." The current Assembly District is about the same as the proposed one. But Marin is included with a San Francisco Assembly District in its current Senate District while it's included with Santa Rosa to the north for enough population for a Congressional District - but not San Francisco.

The proposed new configuration has an interesting effect on San Francisco. While it's Assembly and Congressional Districts aren't changed, it finally gets to be in a single unified Senate District if the proposals are approved as is.

So it seems this all works out. But there is one area that is sure to be contentious - Santa Rosa and the area of Sonoma County immediately surrounding it:

Here's the odd thing. In 2000 Santa Rosa and it's surrounds was included in an Assembly District that included much of Napa County and over into the Sacramento Valley almost to I-505.

But it was included in the North Coast Senate District and in a Congressional District with Marin which was not in that Senate District.

The Santa Rosa situation remains odd. The proposed Assembly District is similar to the current one. But it is proposed to include the Santa Rosa Assembly District with an Assembly District that includes Lodi to create a Senate District. On the other hand, Santa Rosa is included in a Congressional District that crosses the Sacramento Valley including Yuba City and into the Sierra's including communities like Frenchtown.

The apparent first need was to reduce population of a contiguous coastline North Bay Senate District population by about 250,000 to make it a viable size.  In the end, there may be no way to avoid this kind of oddity because of population shifts. If combining this way promotes the stated goals in 90% of California while not promoting some political objective, then we probably are stuck with situations like this.

Will the voters that created this Commission support it publicly or will we have the usual government agency public hearings where only opponents turn out in large numbers? Can the Citizens Redistricting Commission stand up to hostile attacks from interest groups on its proposal? I hope so, because it is clear they did a credible job.

But the real question is will it be politics as usual in 2012 after the dust settles? When it comes to encouraging people to run for office and voting for independent-thinking candidates, we Californians don't have a very good track record.

No comments: