COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE HAWKINS

Our redistricting process seems more like a circus

Nine years ago San Diego voters rebelled and approved an amendment to the city charter that, they were told, would take redistricting out of the hands of special interest groups. Voters agreed responsible government demanded redistricting be done by seven nonpartisan citizens.

The idea was viewed as a model for the state and perhaps the country. Some observers now suggest San Diego's process is more a model for Ringling Brothers.

Redistricting requirements are grounded in the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868. They are augmented by the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1964 and judicial interpretations over the intervening years. The intent is to ensure that individuals, ethnic groups and various communities of interest have a fair opportunity to elect someone who represents them.

Left in the hands of elected officials, those rules have been circumvented to such an extent that frequently there are "protected" seats. Gerrymandered districts were routine.

This was especially true in the south. Election districts were drawn to disenfranchise African Americans. Today in San Diego some think new city council districts will be drawn to disenfranchise conservative and business points of view.

The first problem, they say, is the makeup of the redistricting commission, managed by a seemingly partisan executive director. She is aided by four clearly partisan commissioners. People to the right of the political center believe Democrats and Big Labor have hijacked the process.

The process used to select commissioners does have its problems. The appointments were to be made by three retired judges. Instead, decisions were left to a pair because a third judge was ill.

The applications for the commission appointments did not call for disclosure of partisan or philosophical alignments. The judges had no easy way of knowing that one of the persons they appointed was an active union member, two others were very active democrats, and another ran for elected office as a Democrat. None of the applicants was required to "fess up." None of those appointed did.

When I first learned this I gave the commissioners the benefit of the doubt. They have an extremely important job and I thought they would be as objective as they could be in drawing the nine city council districts. I am an optimist and still have that belief. I hope the commissioners exercise integrity and act as objectively and fairly as they can. Perhaps the people who crafted an application that required little disclosure had that same hope.

All seven commissioners have their own personal and perhaps professional points of view. It will take a herculean effort on their parts to put their partisan beliefs aside and make decisions on districts that reflect both the intent and the spirit of the various laws and judicial decisions that apply.

The proof will be in the result, of course, but the process is discouraging. The application forms could have been more complete. A third appointing judge probably should have been identified. The commissioners themselves have been slow to hire a professional "line drawer," someone who can utilize the myriad of available data to allow the drawing of district lines that meet the VRA without establishing a political bias. That leaves them reliant on various special interest groups that have been proposing district maps.

While the VRA and subsequent court decisions demand specific principles be followed the rules are such that politically biased districts can be drawn. One expert maintains it's possible to create seven of the nine districts that on paper would be safe seats for Democrats and organized labor. It is also possible, according to that same expert, to create six districts that would, again on paper, be safe districts for Republicans and conservative business interests.

Neither should be an objective of the commission. Its task is to design nine council districts that do not disenfranchise specific voting groups. Partisan political positions are not to be considered.

Objectivity is one of the most difficult of human behaviors. We are all products of our environment, our training, our friends and associates. This creates biases that are sometimes so subtle as to be impossible to recognize.

It will take great effort and a competently prepared map proposal from which to work to achieve the objective the voters had in mind nine years ago. The commissioners are honor bound to make that happen. Let's hope they are better than their critics are making them out to be.


Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver, Colo. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

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Michael McSweeney 8:30am May 18, 2011

Mr. Hawkins hit the nail on the head. Just the appearance of bias is enough to call the Commission's work into question. The more one pulls back the layers of this onion, the more the odor of bias permeates the room. Even with a 3 retired judge panel, the previous commenter here, Judge Stirling, wouldn't be considered as a selector because he was a partisan office holder. If he didn't recuse himself, those on the opposite side would have a very valid argument to call into questions his appointment votes. The state of California Redistricting Commission stated CLEARLY that nobody who had ANY partisan affiliations would be qualified or chosen to serve on the state commission. Is it too much to ask that the same standards apply here?

Larry Stirling 12:59pm May 17, 2011

Extremely well done.