THE BLOG
11/27/2011 11:47 am ET | Updated Jan 27, 2012

Fix Gerrymandering to Fix the Electorate

The Founders of our Country were wise enough to provide us with a decennial census of the inhabitants to ensure each of the States received a fair allocation of representatives.

In 1980 I had the opportunity to serve as Director of the Census Bureau -- the agency responsible for collecting and providing this information to every state, district and protectorate to ensure that these entities can create Congressional and legislative districts that fairly represent each citizen of our country.

This year I had the opportunity, as a member of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, to be on the receiving end of that information. The reason for this opportunity arose from the public's dissatisfaction with the manner in which the current political process has used this information in the past. This displeasure is felt in all 50 states and by citizens of all political persuasion.

Throughout our country's history, a democratic process in which citizens are actively engaged has been our lifeblood. The beauty of the process is that it allows voters to participate in how their government is run by freely electing their representatives and leaders. Up until recently in California, in part based on the traditional, incumbent-based redistricting process, the engagement between citizen and elected officials has diminished. The extent to which incumbents have been protected is demonstrated by the fact that in the 765 elections held in California's congressional and legislative districts since 2002, only five seats changed party representation.

To provide its citizens with the opportunity to be more engaged, California voters passed a reform to end political Gerrymandering. Based on this experience I believe this initial attempt at reform should serve as a pilot demonstration for other states and local governments to consider in developing their own reforms -- based on the conditions existing in their State. The voters created the independent California Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw and approve Congressional, legislative and Board of Equalization districts, a job previously done by the state legislature.

The hope was that by giving the job to the citizens the end result would be fair and representative.

In the California approach the 14 member Citizens Redistricting Commission consists of five Republicans, five Democrats and four members not associated with either of the two major parties. We conducted a process which was unprecedented in its transparency and openness. Holding over 34 public input hearings across California, we heard from over 2,700 speakers and received over 20,000 comments in writing.

The maps drawn by the Commission provide the people of California three distinct advantages over the maps previously produced by the Legislature. They were drawn without regard to political parties or residence of incumbents. They reflect geographic and common-sense boundaries, and the districts incorporate community interests in a way to maximize fair and effective political representation.

California is not only one of the most geographically diverse states in America; it is also one of the most ethnically diverse states. The socio-economic conditions and cultures of the people of California reflect those found throughout the world. To address diversity, the Commission followed the criteria identified in the U.S. and California Constitutions, which included adherence to the Voting Rights Act. Considerable attention was also paid to communities of interest.

Reforming the way district lines are drawn is critical to giving more power to our citizens by producing a fairer and more level playing field. In doing so, we can begin restoring the public's faith and confidence in its elected leaders.

The widespread disapproval of elected leaders fuels cynicism and often leads to an apathetic and lethargic populace. As the country grapples with its gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression this disaffection is harmful to being able to build a consensus on a path to economic recovery. The public's anger has also spread to Wall Street and other venerable business institutions.

To be able to revitalize our economy we must first rejuvenate the American spirit. Political reform is essential to accomplishing this task. Structuring electoral districts that favor community empowerment and participation over political games and partisanship is a reform that will pay huge dividends. To provide this there is no reason to start from scratch. Our effort in California provides an example of a process from which we all can learn. Not everyone, including some entrenched forces, agreed with our effort. The process that was approved by the voters allowed anyone to come directly to our State's Supreme Court and seek redress.
In September of this year, the seven member California Supreme Court voted unanimously in favor of the Commission by dismissing the only two lawsuits filed against the maps. This is heartening news for the public. The Court's action shows that when voters pass the right reforms they can't just be thrown out because partisan political interests disagree.

The completion of our effort reminded me of the quote by Alexis de Tocqueville, "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults".