The term “gerrymandering” is defined as dividing a state into districts for the choice of representatives, in an unnatural and unfair way, with a view to giving a political party an advantage over its opponent. The word “gerrymander” represents a blend of the name of a former Massachusetts Governor, Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) with the name “salamander” which was used to describe the appearance of an odd-shaped electoral district created by Gerry to disadvantage his electoral opponents. Today the best known example of such a district is California’s 23rd Congressional District known as the “Ribbon of Shame,” created in 2001 when California’s Democrats and Republicans banded together and, utilizing highly advanced computers and an extensive political and ethnic database, drew the most sophisticated gerrymander in the history of politics. The “Ribbon of Shame” is a contorted district covering nearly 200 miles from Monterey County to San Luis Obispo County to Santa Barbara County and ending in Ventura County. It is no more than five miles wide in most places and sometimes only 100 yards. It was designed to capture the Democratic households and avoid the Republican households. In order to create this “safe” Democratic district, Democrats removed the interior portions of both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties and extended the district south into Ventura County. California has been at the center of the gerrymandering controversy since 1962 pushing the concept to the extremes in 1981 and 2001. In 1971 and 1991, Republican governors blocked efforts to gerrymander the state and sent the redistricting to the Supreme Court, which appointed panels of three retired judges to serve as “Special Masters” in charge of drawing the districts. In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger attempted to reinstate the use of “Special Masters” on a permanent basis through Special Election Proposition 77 which failed at the polls. Gerrymandering creates “safe seat” districts which cause the extremists from each party to be elected. With “safe seat” districts, since whichever party has the “safe seat” is assured election, the most important race is the “primary.” If the district is Democratic, to get the support of the party, a candidate must not be outflanked on the left by his or her opponent. If the District is Republican, to get the support of the party, a candidate must not be outflanked on the right by his or her opponent. The result is the election of the most extreme candidates. This creates roadblocks in the legislature because the extremists of each party find it difficult to agree or compromise on issues, therefore, unless one party is in control of at least two-thirds of the legislature, many potentially valuable bills will not pass. What two-party system? In addition to creating “safe seat” districts and assuring the election of extremists, gerrymandering compromises the effectiveness of the two-party system in the following ways: the minority party usually wins far fewer seats than its percentage of the total vote; promising local leaders are blocked from opportunities to run for higher office; incentives to recruit the best qualified candidates and establish strong ties to the grassroots voters are eliminated and potential voters’ motivation to be involved in the political process is stifled. Although California has been unsuccessful thus far, other states have succeeded with redistricting reform. The most successful models to date utilize Independent Redistricting Commissions composed of bipartisan citizens. No state currently uses a commission composed of retired judges or “Special Masters.” In December, 2006, a proposed constitutional amendment (ACA 1) was introduced into the California Assembly, by Assembly Member Dymally requiring the appointment of an Independent Redistricting Commission, composed of 5 members that would be charged with establishing, by February 28 of each year ending in the number one, congressional, Assembly, Senate, and State Board of Equalization districts of equal population in compliance with the United States Constitution, pursuant to a mapping process for each district in accordance with specified goals. The Commission would be required to approve a redistricting plan that includes the final maps for all districts. Any challenges to the Commission’s redistricting plan would fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the California Supreme Court. Once again trouble is brewing for redistricting reform. This time it is coming from Washington, as reported in the Sunday, February 25, 2007 edition of the Los Angeles Times. “Fresh from their victories in the November election, Democrats in Congress don’t want to risk their fragile majority. Many Republicans don’t want their relatively safe seats threatened either.” As a result, California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez who is also crafting redistricting reform legislation said he thinks he will have to exempt Congress from his legislation. It seems that as long as incumbents are fearful of losing their seats, redistricting reforms are in jeopardy. Whatever happened to the concept of performing well in order to keep one’s job? Gregory N. Lippe, CPA, is managing partner of the Woodland Hills-based CPA firm of Lippe, Hellie, Hoffer & Allison, LLP and Vice-chair of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assoc. (VICA).
The State’s Ribbon Continues to Shame