Statement of Chellie Pingree, President of Common Cause Endorsing Proposition 77: The Voter Empowerment Act

Common Cause endorses Proposition 77, the Voter Empowerment Act, and urges the people of California to support this important initiative, which will take the power to draw legislative and congressional district lines out of the hands of partisan legislators and put that power in the hands of an independent commission.

In California and around the country, we have a broken redistricting system that allows incumbent politicians to choose the voters they wish to represent, instead of allowing the people to elect those who best represent their interests. This system is not only a fundamental conflict of interest, but it is anti-democratic and rotten to the core. In California, legislators from both political parties collude to create safe seats where they will face no competition from opposing parties, or from challengers within their own party.

The 2001 redistricting map passed by the legislature created safe seats for all incumbents of both major political parties, and even their handpicked successors. The result has been two rounds of state elections where not one incumbent lost and not one seat switched parties.

The resulting plans have created districts that stretch on for hundreds of miles, divide communities and leave millions of Californians disenfranchised, without any real choice in their elections, and with no opportunity to elect representatives of their choosing.

This is both a California problem and a national problem. In the 2004 election for the U.S. House of Representatives:

More than 85 percent of House incumbents won by landslide majorities of more than 60 percent.

Only seven incumbents, of 399 running, lost their seats. That’s a 98.2% re-election rate.

Outside of Texas, where a mid-cycle Republican redistricting effort led to the defeat of four targeted incumbent Democrats, only three incumbents lost their seats — a greater than 99 percent incumbent re-election rate for House members in 49 states.

Common Cause, which has pushed for reform of the anti-democratic redistricting process for 30 years, renewed the call for reform in January of this year. In February we called on the California legislature to act by voting on reforms that would create:

A truly independent redistricting commission,

Strong and fair criteria for drawing the districts, and,

A fair and transparent public process.

Common Cause devoted considerable resources and effort to push for a legislative solution. Although the legislature considered several pieces of legislation in its past session, and legislators of both political parties committed to removing themselves from the redistricting process, partisan legislators were unable, or unwilling, to pass a redistricting reform bill.

Without aggressive action, the people of California will likely face many more years of elections in which they have little ability to determine the outcome.

There is a better way:

We must start with redistricting reform that meets the straightforward and fair principles laid out above.

We must remove the redistricting process from the hands of partisan legislators and give the task over to an independent commission.

We must establish fair criteria that guide the process by which the commission develops plans for the state, and we must establish an open and transparent public process.

Proposition 77 meets these principles. The initiative is not perfect; none ever is. However, Proposition 77 is an important first step in reforming the broken redistricting system in California, and I urge the people of California to vote yes on Prop. 77.

Prop. 77 will take the power to draw legislative and congressional boundaries out of the hands of partisan legislators in Sacramento, and puts the issue before the people of California. The responsibility for drawing the lines would be placed in the hands of an independent panel of three retired judges who must be removed from partisan politics.

Prop. 77 establishes fair standards that the independent commission must meet in development of its plans. These standards require that the commission:

Create districts of equal population,

Comply with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act,

Create districts that are nested, so that each board of equalization district be made up of 10 Senate districts and each Senate district be comprised of two Assembly districts,

Develop plans where each district is contiguous,

Respect city and county boundaries,

Create compact districts,

Not fragment census blocks, and

Not give consideration to the effect on political parties or incumbents.

Prop. 77 also provides that the commission’s activities and proceedings be transparent and open to the public, in accord with California’s Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act.

Common Cause has been working to reform the redistricting process since 1975. In 1977, Common Cause published a model redistricting law, advocating an approach to redistricting reform that was based on the goals of establishing independent redistricting commissions, in lieu of state legislatures, to draw redistricting plans, and relying on the use of “neutral” standards and criteria to guide the development of a plan.

To date, several states have established independent or semi-independent commissions to carry out the redistricting process. In the 1980 and 1990 rounds of redistricting, Common Cause worked to reform the redistricting process, either through the legislative process or by initiative. Several of those state efforts were successful. Most recently Common Cause worked with a broad coalition to pass a redistricting reform measure via the ballot in Arizona. We are also active partners in efforts to pass redistricting reform via the ballot in Florida, Massachusetts and in Ohio.

It’s time to get the fox out of the henhouse and to put an end to California’s rigged system of elections. Common Cause urges the people of California to vote “YES” on Prop. 77