"Some of the districts look like they were drawn by a drunk with an Etch a Sketch." That was Gov. Schwarzenegger's assessment recently in his campaign to reform redistricting of the Legislature. As drawn today, the state's legislative boundaries call into question whether we retain the basic principle of self-government.
Schwarzenegger would have voters empower a panel of retired judges to redraw district lines. Such panels do not guarantee a good or legal outcome. But politics is never about guaranteed results.
With all the bipartisan grumbling about the proposal, it's easy to lose sight of what a representative body is supposed to do. James Madison maintained in "The Federalist" that elected representatives' duty was "to refine and enlarge the public views," so that "enlightened views" and "virtuous sentiments" might prevail.
In short, find good people and keep them good by threatening their defeat and rewarding them with re-election. That means voters need to know their neighbors and choose representatives from among them; and representatives need to know their colleagues.
Want to really shake up this Legislature? Double its size. Districts need to be smaller, but the size of the legislature cannot grow so large that the members never have a chance to get to know each other.
Right now, 40 senators each represent 846,791 people in areas that can encompass five or 10 Assembly districts.
These districts are far too large to make possible representation of the sort desired by Madison and the founders. Do voters and their representatives feel "at home" with each other? Voters can't possibly feel that way with someone who has been parachuted into their district by a party cabal.
The representatives, in turn, need to know their constituents. In this way, we encourage democratic participation and representative responsibility toward their constituents (and not Sacramento lobbyists).
As a vivid demonstration of what's wrong with the current boundaries, consider the 29th Senate District, which covers three counties and includes parts of 10 Assembly districts. It looks like a fat-headed question mark. The populated parts are three separated protrusions, two small, on the head's lengthy western nose and upper lip, and a large jaw and neck coming down south from the Angeles National Forest.
The new political redistricting wizards created districts to make their voters around 60 percent of a particular district. More than that is unnecessary to provide a comfortable victory margin, less than that and the district will be competitive! So too many districts resemble dumbbells, splattered bugs, or lopsided question marks. Clearly, these lines were not drawn with the public good in mind.
Rejecting these peculiarities and adopting these principles, let at least 160 assembly members reside in at least 80 senate districts, two per district, which used to be the norm. Districts would be redrawn in conformity with our original constitutional principles, allowing better representation and greater citizen oversight.
Next, draw district boundaries compactly, leave small cities whole, and fit each district within one of our 58 counties. That would produce a far better, more equitable and more representative system that the comical patchwork we have now.
Might not such a new arrangement better reflect the diversity of California—in all ways, not just ethnic or racial, but regional and economic—than our current system? New voices would create a new dynamic for California's democratic life.
Though nearly half a million people in a senate district would still be too many to shake hands with, having two "nested" assembly members to deal with on district matters should help make California's diversity a strength and even promote acts of bipartisanship.
By doubling the size of the Senate and the Assembly, the new birth of self-government would attract idealists of both parties. The public would have to tolerate more salaries for members and staff, but it would more likely be a Legislature that worked for the public good.