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California's Unsound Redistricting Process

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The Harmon Hotel, Spa & Residences, a glamorous 49-story complex, was supposed to be the signature feature of the Las Vegas Strip's new CityCenter, the largest commercial construction project in American history. After plunging six years of planning and millions of dollars into the project, the hotel will be demolished without ever housing a single guest.

Earlier this month, MGM Resorts International took the extraordinary step of seeking legal permission to implode its own building after engineering experts discovered major structural flaws and construction defects that could cause the building to collapse in an earthquake. But, the Harmon Hotel isn't the only historic endeavor that deserves to be scrapped.

California's Citizens Redistricting Commission also has structural flaws that undermine the integrity of its work product -- and it didn't require an earthquake to bring it crumbling down.

The commission's flaws are almost too numerous to believe: a brief and inadequate background check of commission applicants, an inability to deliver three draft maps for public input, and a failure to follow an open and transparent process. As a result, voters are left with maps, which at least one commissioner believes, violate federal law.

The commission's problems began with an inadequate review of its own applicants and, worse, those who ultimately were permitted to serve. A September 2010 memo from the California State Auditor's office described their own background checks of commission applicants as "routine" and "obviously rather brief." These inadequate reviews by state auditors failed to reveal multiple campaign contributions made by two commissioners to state political committees. And state auditors didn't even need to spend months rooting around in dusty archives or abandoned storage lockers. The proof was just a click away -- online for all to see.

One campaign contribution by Commissioner Dr. Gabino Aguirre posted on the California Secretary of State's website nine days after state auditors completed their background check. The contribution was significant, not because of its small dollar amount, but for its recipient, an incumbent State Assemblyman who benefited handily from the new district lines. The State Constitution actually contains language banning commissioners from factoring incumbents into their mapmaking decisions.

A second commissioner, Jeanne Raya, made $1,000 in campaign contributions from a business account to a political action committee. While business contributions themselves might not be grounds for disqualification, these contributions should have been disclosed to the public, especially in light of the commission's obligation to maintain an open and transparent process.

If the commission had drawn lines based on objective criteria, such potential conflicts of interest could be easily dismissed. Yet, the commission routinely and repeatedly relied upon the vague and elastic term "community of interest" to draw boundaries. The major danger here is that communities of interest quickly became an umbrella term that selectively included air pollution, joblessness and even flight paths. Is there any way to know why the commission sought to ensure representation for the jobless in Los Angeles County and not the Silicon Valley?

The commission also failed to implement an in-process review to prevent staff bias and ensure that the public's comments were properly represented. A June 30th staff memo that summarized Southern California public input alleged that a main theme from written comments was, "Keep Rossmoor with Long Beach."

Commissioner Mike Ward, the lone commissioner to vote against all of the commission's maps, rebutted this accounting of the public comments and pressed staff for an explanation. In a July 15th email, a mapping consultant admitted, "It appears that they were misinterpreted by our input specialists." Ward believes that "without any kind of in-process review, it's difficult to determine how many other public comments were misrepresented."

Finally, the most glaring problems with the commission's proposed maps are possible violations of the federal Voting Rights Act. The courts have traditionally interpreted the Voting Rights Act to mean that mapmakers must draw "majority-minority" districts to the greatest extent possible. Such districts guarantee representation for historically underrepresented ethnic groups.

In Los Angeles County, African-Americans were split across three congressional districts, instead of being drawn into one or two majority-minority districts. George Brown, a commission attorney who advised the commission on compliance with the Voting Rights Act, warned that splitting the African-American community into three congressional districts was legally unsound.

"I don't think that on its face there's a legal basis for saying just draw three districts with 30 percent African-American voting strength in the same areas that they're in now," Brown told commissioners at a May 28th hearing in Northridge.

Californians can expect the fundamental flaws in the redistricting process to surface in legal challenges and even a referendum that may challenge the entire system. The ultimate tragedy is that gerrymandering is real and there are many ways politicians and political activists manipulate the reapportionment process. The work of the commission was undertaken with the best of intentions and for all the right reasons -- and yet its cure was as bad as the problem it sought to solve.

Like the Harmon, this commission's superstructure needs to be torn down before it falls down -- right on top of all of us.

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