Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Civil rights groups worried about effects of remap proposal

SACRAMENTO — Proponents of a redistricting ballot measure have been hard at work casting Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata as the villainous obstacle to reform. They have chastised him as a self-serving politician plotting a campaign against the initiative with interest groups and lobbyists to preserve the Legislature's ability to draw its own political boundaries.

Meanwhile, the Oakland Democrat is providing the operational support for the opposition campaign — the newly christened Citizens for Accountability: No on the Power Grab. It is likely to pummel voters with the message that Proposition 11 is a Republican effort to overtake the Democratic majority, financed by many of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's wealthy GOP friends.

But, holding yet a third banner in what could be a slugfest this fall are Latino and African-American civil rights groups who came out against the measure even before the state Democratic Party, and are aghast at the potential consequences of change. They are not yet working with the opposition, but they have assailed the initiative as having the potential to unravel decades of voting rights gains.

"Democrats have their reasons for opposing this — they want to keep their power," said Alan Clayton, a redistricting expert with the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Associaton. "But our reasons are the potential reduction of minorities in the Legislature. It could take the clock back in terms of political Advertisementpower in the Legislature that Latinos and African Americans have secured."

Currently, there are 28 Latinos, eight African Americans and six Asian American Pacific Islanders among 120 state lawmakers.

The proposed constitutional amendment would strip the Legislature of the power to draw political boundaries for the Legislature and Board of Equalization, handing authority to a 14-member commission. That commission, which would be made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents, would be whittled down from a pool of 60 applicants — eight chosen by the state auditor, and the final six by the eight new commissioners.

That commission, based on specifically laid-out criteria, would draw up maps that would largely exclude political considerations that have long guided legislative redistricting efforts every 10 years nationwide.

The civil rights groups include the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association of Latino and Elected Officials and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. They all maintain that the proposal's criteria — all the rationales that commissioners would use to draw political boundaries — are flawed and give insufficient protection to Voting Rights Act principles. The Voting Rights Act protects minority communities' ability to elect representatives in state Legislatures and Congress.

"It puts in numerous non-traditional redistricting principles that could make it difficult to fully respect the Voting Rights Act," said Steven Ochoa, director of voting rights and policy research at the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonprofit group that focuses on Latino and other minority groups' political participation. "We believe reform is necessary. But this won't accomplish what they think it will."

For example, the ballot measure has, as one of its goals, "nested" districts among numerous criteria: Assembly districts that stay within the bounds of a single Senate district, which would avoid the gerrymandered boundaries that often result in snakelike districts that string through numerous communities. Studies have shown, however, that nesting locks communities into hard boundaries and work against the goal of creating minority-majority districts, Ochoa said.

Civil rights groups worry that political mapmakers might opt for the less complex choice of nesting than the difficult work of drawing together communities of interest.

Backers of the initiative, which include Common Cause of California, the League of Women Voters and AARP, do not agree that minority interests are threatened.

"We're very cognizant of protecting minority interests and voting rights," said Steven Reyes, an attorney with the political law firm Kaufman Downing. He is a former staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund who helped draft the initiative. "We're not assuming at all that any minority districts will be sacrificed. You still have the Voting Rights Act protection placed front and center in the initiative."

But civil rights groups also worry that the design of the independent commission — the centerpiece to the proposal — gives short shrift to the goal of diversity. Having 14 commissioners divided among five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents dilutes the influence of minorities, they say.

It would be a huge change from the current system, in which 120 lawmakers — out of whom a majority are Democrats, who have minority interests in mind — give final say to a redistricting plan.

The proposal's limits on who is eligible to serve on the independent commission also has raised questions from minority groups. For one, it allows only those who have voted in the most recent three general elections — which would cut out a huge swath of Latinos, whose involvement in politics coincides with Latino population growths.

Latinos represented 35 percent of the state's population in 2006 but only 19 percent of the state's registered voters. But of the people who voted in the past three general elections, Latinos represented only 11 percent, Ochoa said.

The proposal also cuts out anyone who, in the previous 10 years, contributed $2,000 to candidates, served as a political consultant or ran for political office.

"You'd lose experienced voting rights experts, demographic experts, people who understand relationships that various California communities have," Ochoa said. "You run the risk of a commission that would be staff-dependent, moving accountability further away from the public. If the goal is to remove politics from the process, it's naive."

  • Cell Phone Users May Get Break on Fees
  • Remap proposal worries civil rights groups
  • Governor enlists former foe for redistricting reform