Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bloomberg Seeks to Terminate Legislative Control of Redistricting

Yesterday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came out in support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s redistricting reform proposal, which would take intense partisan process out of the legislature and vest it in the hands of a commission comprised of Republicans, Democrats, and citizens affiliated with neither party. Bloomberg’s infusion of cash (250K) to the reform initiative was not merely a favor to his long-time friend, but also an expression of his hope that, “if [Schwarzenegger] can get that done there, maybe, just maybe, our Legislature here would do the same thing.”

Like the Mayor, the Brennan Center has fought for an independent commission in New York to wrestle control from legislators, who stand to manipulate district lines with narrow self-interest. Of course, independence is not our only concern. Any overhaul of the system must ensure that the commission is sufficiently large enough to reflect the racial, geographic, and partisan diversity of the state, while making every effort to construct a representative redistricting panel. California’s last attempt at redistricting reform fell flat after proposing that retired judges (a cohort overwhelmingly comprised of White men) should govern the line-drawing process; the larger, more diverse commission outlined in
Schwarzenegger’s most recent proposal is a welcome change.

In addition to diversity, there must be safeguards to prevent commissioners from acting as proxies for incumbents or party operatives. Rules that we like include barring ex parte contact between commissioners and party officials and restricting who may serve on the commission (no lobbyists, no current elected officials, etc). Insider dealing can also be thwarted by conducting all meetings publicly and allowing citizens to submit their own plans and air grievances with the committee.

Finally, any redistricting commission should have enough guidance to avoid mischief, but enough leeway to balance competing interests. Competition, which is typically the primary objective of reformers, is a worthy goal, but reasonable people may differ about how high of a priority it should be. Should it trump the ability of minority groups to elect candidates of choice (we think not)? Or ignore general compactness standards (maybe so)? Juggling these criteria is a difficult task; the same criteria that rein in partisan excess may also produce unintended and unfair results.

Bloomberg’s support of independent redistricting is heartening, and we hope that he continues his advocacy on his home turf. We also hope that California’s latest proposal avoids the fate of previous reform attempts, which blew up like so many things in so many Schwarzenegger movies.

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