Deceptive ballot measures are nothing new in California, but it is rare when an initiative is entirely a lie.  That is the case with Proposition 27, a big lie ballot measure to eliminate the voter-approved Citizens Redistricting Commission and return this vital function to self serving incumbent legislators.

Fed up with the dysfunctional legislature whose approval rating is now just 10 percent, voters in 2008 passed Proposition 11 to take the drawing of legislative districts away from politicians and give it to a 14-member Citizens Commission.  Voters said it is time to end the practice of incumbents drawing districts for themselves.

The reform the people passed in 2008 has gone spectacularly well; more than 30,000 citizens applied for the Commission, and the 60 finalists include Democrats, Republicans, Green Party members, political independents, whites, Latinos, blacks, Asians and Native Americans.  The Commission will reflect the diversity of the state, and will draw the new districts in 2011 according to specific and transparent criteria.

That’s the problem, from the politicians’ point of view; the Commission won’t take care of incumbent political needs and give legislators the safe districts they enjoy today.

Proposition 27 is the politicians way of getting back this power, by transferring the district drawing back to themselves.  To justify this power grab, Proposition 27 proponents have concocted a pack of falsehoods that roll like water off a duck’s back.

The first big lie is that Proposition 27 somehow saves money.  The major costs in redistricting are the database and software used to draw the districts, and the technical and legal staff that does the work, and in the case of the Commission, the cost of public meetings and analysis of districting plans submitted by interested parties.  The Legislative Analyst estimates that "the savings from this measure over the next year could be around $1 million."  But that savings comes from doing away with the transparency provided for by the public Citizens Commission process.

Legislative Analyst estimates that $3 million was spent on redistricting in 2001, but this does not include defending against legal challenges to the legislature’s redistricting; in fact, no one knows the exact amount because the legislature does its redistricting in secret.  I know because I was on the Assembly redistricting staff in 1971 and 1981, and we carefully hid the real costs of our work.  The notion that a secret process of legislators drawing their own districts saves money over the transparent Citizens Commission is just nonsense.

The second big lie is that Proposition 27 "will ensure that those who make the decisions are accountable to the voters."  In fact, the truth is just the opposite.  When I was a redistricting consultant, I did everything in my power to insulate my incumbents from the voters by loading their districts with favorable partisans.  The last thing politicians want are unsafe districts where the electorate actually might vote them out of office.

A third big lie claims the Commission’s requirement that districts reflect communities of interest somehow segregates voters into "Jim Crow" districts.  This is a particularly odious claim because the history of legislative-drawn districts is protection of incumbents, mostly old white guys, at the expense of minority voters.  The biggest gains for minorities in the legislature occurred in the 1970s and 1990s when Supreme Court Masters drew the district lines, not incumbent politicians.

But this outrageous claim does get to the heart of the matter.  The only "community of interest" when legislators draw their own districts is partisanship.  California communities were separated by hundreds of little Berlin Walls in 2001 to protect incumbents.  Those squiggly and tortured district lines were not by accident; they placed Democrats into safe Democratic districts and Republicans into safe Republicans districts.  

The upshot has been that legislators cannot break free of the powers that control their own parties; the anti-tax crowd for Republicans, the public employee unions for Democrats.  For a decade we have had a legislature that cannot even perform its most fundamental task, passing a budget on time, because it is paralyzed by partisanship.

The Citizens Commission will help relieve this paralysis because its districts will not be partisan gerrymanders, they will help free legislators from the partisan stranglehold created by the 2001 gerrymander.  The criteria the Commission must follow specifically says adjacent population must not be bypassed to reach for far distant population. That will stop the practice of cobbling together elongated districts drawn solely for partisan gain.

Instead the Commission will draw districts in full sunlight; and they must by law not only respect the diversity of California’s population but also of its geography.  Areas with similar economies, transportation corridors, media markets, should be combined together; after all each district elects only one Senator or Assembly member.  The overriding criterion when legislators draw their own districts is partisan registration; the Commission’s mandate is to set partisanship aside and create districts that logically represent the varied interests that make up this state.

That happened in past decades when the Supreme Court Masters drew the districts, and control of the legislature changed hands under their nonpartisan districting plans.  That is what the voters called for in 2008 when they created the Citizens Commission.  Now even before the Commission has been selected, the politicians want to take this power away.

But voters are not stupid, they can see the big lie of Proposition 27 for what it is, a grab for power by incumbent legislators whose sole interest is keeping themselves in power.