California Propositions: 20 & 27

You enter the box, slap a few checkmarks next to the names of your favorite candidates—be it because they have great political platforms or just an inviting smile—and you’re done. This is voting. This is a representative democracy. But who’s representing you? More importantly, why are they representing you specifically? Finally, who else is being represented by these candidates? Questions like these have led to the introduction of Propositions 20 and 27, or for our purposes, the “election propositions.”

In 2008, Californians began addressing these questions when they passed Prop. 11. Every 10 years, following the national census, boundaries dividing voting districts are redrawn to account for population changes. As certain communities grow in population relative to others, they deserve a larger share of representation in California’s State Assembly, Senate, and Board of Equalization. Until 2008, this process of redistricting was the responsibility of the members of the California state legislature.

This presented a clear conflict of interest: representatives were free to draw district lines such that an overwhelming percentage of voters in their districts identified with their respective parties. To a large degree, representatives were able to ensure that they would continually be reelected. Even if they only did a mediocre job, elected representatives had little incentive to make major improvements in the communities they represented because they were almost guaranteed not to be voted out of office. The system wasn’t working.

With the passage of Prop. 11, the system was turned on its head. Prop. 11 established a private organization, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CCRC), to take charge of drawing new district boundaries. As established, the CCRC is composed of 14 registered and active voters: five self-identified Democrats, five self-identified Republicans, and four voters unaffiliated with either major party. The selection process is long and arduous, as these 14 members must be chosen from an extensive applicant pool. (Over 30,000 applied for spots in the inaugural CCRC.) This process repeats every ten years, so for each redistricting period the CCRC has entirely new members.

After the members have been selected, they use the newly collected census data to determine the new boundaries for the state assembly, senate, and Board of Equalization voting districts. In deciding new district boundaries, the members of the CCRC are required to develop geographically compact districts; maintain the geographic integrity of localities, neighborhoods, and “communities of interest” (as defined by the CCRC); and refrain from favoring or discriminating against any political party or candidate. In order for a proposed district to be accepted, it must be approved by three Democrats, three Republicans, and three independent members.

You may be asking yourself why I’ve used so much ink explaining an old proposition. Well, both Props. 20 and 27 are direct results of Prop. 11. Supporters of Prop. 20 believe Prop. 11 doesn’t go far enough. They argue that the CCRC should determine boundaries for congressional districts in addition to state legislature districts, and that’s exactly what Prop. 20 would require. Supporters of Prop. 27, on the other hand, argue that there is no mechanism that allows Californians to hold the CCRC accountable. Prop. 27 thus calls for the CCRC to be dismantled.

Interestingly, while the state legislature still determines new congressional district boundaries, Prop. 11 does require that these boundaries be geographically compact and maintain the integrity of localities, neighborhoods, and communities of interest (where “communities of interest” are defined by the legislature). Prop. 11 does not, however, prohibit the legislature from favoring or discriminating against political parties or candidates in redistricting; this is why Prop. 20 is the best option.

Prop. 20 would give the CCRC the responsibility of drawing congressional districts, still adhering to the current rules for drawing state legislature districts. Prop. 20 also clearly defines a “community of interest” as “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.” While some, such as Professor Daniel Lowenstein of the UCLA School of Law, argue that this definition is Jim Crow-esque, I find it to be in keeping with the original motivation behind establishing representative districts: to provide one voice for a community that has similar interests.

Prop. 27, on the other hand, would return the authority to determine state legislature districts to the state legislature and eliminate the CCRC. The strongest argument for Prop. 27 is that, as an independent agency, the CCRC is not directly accountable to voters—members can’t be voted off the CCRC if they do a crummy job. A fair argument, but don’t get too excited about Prop. 27 just yet. Inexplicably, Prop. 27 also includes a section deleting some of the rules to which the state legislature typically adheres in redistricting. Specifically, Prop. 27 would allow the legislature to create districts that are not geographically compact and that may favor or discriminate against certain political parties or candidates. Thus, if Prop. 27 were passed, the legislature could technically create a district that encompasses parts of Los Angeles and San Francisco, arguing that both are urban areas and hence more Democratic—essentially, an attempt to protect the Democratic vote in the legislature. If that doesn’t sound in any way contrary to representative democracy, I don’t know what does.

Ultimately, it comes down to establishing equal and fair representation. Who is representing you? Why are they representing you specifically? Who else is being represented in your district? Pass Prop. 20 and fail Prop. 27, and you put your trust in an independent commission of voters rather than gerrymandering politicians. Pass Prop. 27 and fail Prop. 20, and you put your trust in elected officials rather than an unaccountable bureaucracy. Fail both, and you allow the CCRC and state legislature to each have a piece of the pie. Pass both, and your cheeks should turn red.

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