The Myth of Fair Reapportionment

Douglas Jeffe
Communications and Public Affairs Strategist

“Good Government{” types call for a fair and objective system of drawing legislative boundaries.  Republicans want to take the drafting tools out of the hands of legislators and then bemoan the results.  Democrats squirm when incumbents are pitted against each other.  Communities, neighborhoods  and ethnic constituencies insist that they be consolidated into single districts to theoretically increase their clout.  And everybody complains about the results because there is no such thing as a fair or unfair reapportionment.

Long ago, the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that districts have to be of equal size in terms of population.  Further judicial rulings preclude  plans that disadvantage minority groups.  Whether districts are drawn by Democrats, Republicans, independents or cloistered monks,  they must meet these standards.  Otherwise the merits and demerits of any reapportionment plan are a matter of personal preference.  And, of course, with any plan there will always be winners and losers.  Inevitably, the losers cry foul.

Over the years in Sacramento,  lines have had to be redrawn to include contributors, parish priests and tourist attractions.  In one case, decades ago,  a member of the Assembly balked because  there was too much red in his district map,  so the committee drawing the maps simply changed the color scheme and left the boundaries intact.  Now, under the State’s new “independent ” Commission, lawmakers don’t have a say, but critics still abound.  It is ironic that GOP proponents of the independent commission are so unhappy that they have forced the new Senate plan to a statewide referendum in November–likely after they have lost even their meager one-third foothold in the upper house.

One of the loudest complaints is when communities are divided between adjoining districts, as if this is necessarily a bad thing.  Now, here is a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing in the City of Los Angeles these days as new Council lines are being drawn.  Everyone has an agenda and nobody wants to give an inch of territory, even though districts have to be redrawn to equalize population.  The San Fernando Valley, Korea Town, Downtown and the airport area all have their own ideas about which districts should represent them.  Maybe, some of those folks should rethink their positions.

In many respects, communities are advantaged by having multiple lawmakers share their territory.  Is it better for a child to have a single parent or two doting parents?   An example of this is the situation at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and its affiliated research institution–LA BioMed.  Although the campus is in Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas’ district,  its service area includes areas represented by both Supervisors Ridley Thomas and Don Knabe.  Both supervisors have been strong champions of both the hospital and LA Bio Med and have given the campus a stronger voice in County government.  Any community is likely to benefit from having multiple representatives paying attention to its interests.

While editorial writers and reformers seem to love neat looking, compact districts, the reality is that these things are always in the eye of the beholder.  There are always political ramifications and tradeoffs when lines are drawn. There is only one place where all of the district lines are fair, just and reasonable–Utopia.  And none of us live there.

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