California redistricting could face initiative challenge and lawsuits

The ink was barely dry on maps released by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission showing the new Congressional, State Assembly, State Senate, and Board of Equalization districts before the challenges started.  The Commission, which is composed of citizens and not politicians, was mandated by the Voters FIRST Act to redraw the districts in a fair and transparent manner. The Commission held numerous open meetings, asked for and received enormous amounts of public input, then labored mightily to create the new districts in a manner which would be received by all as nonpartisan and balanced. Hah!

This, of course, is California, where major political moves regardless of the source tend to be immediately harpooned by various opposition forces, which may well have valid points lurking among their political agendas.  Such attempted harpooning generally results in a festive flurry of counter attacks, followed by generalized confusion, then the gridlock that Californians have been so up close and personal with for years.  

A GOP-based group, Fairness and Accountability in Redistricting, has filed referendum papers to put an initiative on the June 2012 ballot to overturn the State Senate districts.

     “The belief is that at least a number of the districts were not drawn in accordance with the [federal] Voting Rights Act and some provisions of the state Constitution concerning compactness and avoiding county splits,” says an attorney. 

But then, why not file a lawsuit rather than mount a ballot challenge?  They need to get 500,000 signatures in three months, a daunting but certainly plausible task for an organization which can pay people to gather signatures as well as have volunteers do it.

The liberal California Common Cause quickly slammed the initiative as “pure party politics, funded by incumbents who did not get the safe districts that they wanted,” presumably aiming at Republicans. This may well be true but fails to explain why the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) is also upset with the districts and may file lawsuits to block them. MALDEF says the commission ignored input from the San Bernardino Central Democratic Committee and that the new districts do not adequately represent the 40% of Californians who are Latino. Someone should tell Common Cause tha MALDEF is generally not considered a Republican bastion.

Perhaps the most serious charge has been made by a member of the Commission, Mike Ward, in an interview with CalWatchDog. He believes:

     ” the commission broke the law, failed to uphold an open and transparent decision-making process and used political motives in drawing California’s new state and federal legislative districts.”

He claims the smoke-filled rooms of the old system were replaced by smoke-filled rooms of the new system and that current ‘ribbon of shame’ districts are evidence of this.

Finally, the venerable George Skelton of the LA Times says any system is better than the old one, where politicians cynically divided the state, giving everyone safe seats.