Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | September 2, 2008

Prop 11 in District 11

“Redistricting is a deeply political process, with incumbents actively seeking to minimize the risk to themselves … or to gain additional seats for their party.” ~ Thomas Mann

Nine weeks from today. That’s when Americans will cast ballots in a historic presidential election.

The presidential race garners most of our attention, and it’s undoubtedly important: the president appoints Supreme Court justices, has veto power over legislation, sets the national agenda, and is the face of the United States to the rest of the world. But, as we’ve seen over the last eight years, the president can also alter legislation with signing statements, wink at torture, trounce the Constitution and mislead the nation into war.

Despite the significance of the marquee race, other items on the general election ballot also merit voters’ thoughtful consideration.

In the interest of avoiding the dreaded “low-information voter” label, I’m working my way through the ballot. You can review your ballot at the League of Women Voters’ Smart Voter web site. Enter your street address and ZIP code and a list of all the races, propositions and measures on which you’ll be voting in nine short weeks will appear, with links to sites with more information.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how torn I was about Proposition 11, a an incomplete attempt at redistricting reform.

Why do I call Prop 11 incomplete? Because it only applies to state Senate and state Assembly districts, not to districts for the United States House of Representatives.

The 11th congressional district, in which I live, is Exhibit A in any argument for the need of complete redistricting reform that includes not just the statehouse, but the U.S. House of Representatives as well. The sprawling district stretches from south of Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County to Danville in Contra Costa County to north and east of Lodi in San Joaquin County.

Even though District 11 is vast, huge parts of south Santa Clara County – Gilroy, for example – and odd chunks of Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Joaquin counties are not included in its boundaries.

Why are districts drawn like this? To protect incumbents and their political parties. Legislators, who are supposed to draw districts that group communities of interest, instead draw districts that ensure to the greatest degree possible that legislative seats do not change hands.

Because legislators demonstrate again and again that they cannot set aside their own self-interest in favor their constituents’ interests when it comes to drawing legislative districts every ten years, it’s time that we fired them from that job. The way that we can fire them is by passing redistricting reform.

Despite the fact that District 11 is gerrymandered to ridiculous proportions with the aim of eliminating incumbent turnover, I have to give my fellow District 11 residents kudos: Two years ago, despite the overwhelming power of incumbency, they fired seven-term Republican Congressman Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, and replaced him with Democrat Jerry McNerney.

McNerney’s unexpected upset thrilled Salon writer Andrew Leonard, who wrote, “That [Pombo] could be reelected six times in California, one of the most environmentally progressive regions on the planet, has been an enduring shame for many Californians. … But there may well be no more significant victory, for the earth itself, symbolically speaking, than the ouster of Richard Pombo.”

That Pombo was reelected six times in California was evidence of the urgent need for complete redistricting reform. That he was not reelected in 2006 was a happy anomaly, and one in which District 11 voters should take great pride.

But Prop 11 will do nothing to address the gerrymandering of congressional districts like District 11.

It will affect the statehouse, however. I’ve written frequently about the chronic state budget mess. It’s another argument for redistricting reform at the statehouse.

I believe that there are two important steps to reducing legislators’ annual game of chicken over the state budget: restoring majority rule by changing rules that budgets pass with a simple majority and eliminating ridiculously safe legislative seats by passing redistricting reform.

So, while I wish that Prop 11 addressed the drawing of congressional districts, I completely agree with the need to redraw state Assembly and state Senate districts.

I’m voting yes on Prop 11, and, if it passes, immediately starting to stir the pot for redistricting reform for California’s seats in the United States House of Representatives.

It’s not complete redistricting reform, but at least it’s a start.

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