New CA redistricting panel takes aim at bizarre political boundaries

December 23, 2010

By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger refers to it as the “ribbon of shame,” a congressional district that stretches in a reed-thin line 200 miles along the California coast from Oxnard to the Monterey County line. Voters there refer to it as “the district that disappears at high tide.”

Democratic lawmakers drew it that way to make sure one of their own won every election. The party has held the seat throughout the decade — since the last redistricting gave it a big edge in voter registration there.

Critics of that 2001 remapping have cited the coastal ribbon as Exhibit A — the reason, they say, that Californians were right to strip elected officials of the power to choose their voters and give the task of determining political boundaries to more ordinary citizens.

As the new Citizens Redistricting Commission begins its work next month, members say, the 23rd Congressional District will be a good reminder of what not to do.

“It’s been used as an example of how absurd the process is,” said Peter Yao, the commission’s chairman. “It does not allow people to choose the candidate. They are forced to go with the party’s choice.”

Republicans have protected themselves too. Using a spaghetti strip of land along the shore of heavily Democratic Long Beach, for example, they connected a GOP-leaning area of Orange County with a pouch of like-minded voters on the Palos Verdes Peninsula to create the 46th Congressional District.

The whole country, in fact, is marked with districts so distorted by gerrymandering that they are referred to by such names as “Rabbit on a Skateboard” (in Illinois) and “Upside-Down Chinese Dragon” (in Pennsylvania).

California, which voted two years ago to take the job of redrawing state districts from lawmakers, is one of 10 states that have given the job to a citizens group. But most of them are appointed by elected officials and are less independent than the Golden State’s panel.

In the districts drawn by the Legislature the old way, every incumbent member of Congress and the state Legislature on the California ballot was reelected Nov. 2 — even as a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 21% of voters approve of the job being done by Congress and 12% like what state lawmakers do.

Now the bipartisan citizen commission, appointed through a process overseen by the state auditor, will draw both the Legislature’s districts and California’s congressional boundaries. Last month, voters added the federal districts to the panel’s job.

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