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Should L.A. County Supervisors Give Up Their Redistricting Power?

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Detail of the approved 2011 redistricting plan for Los Angeles County
Detail of the approved 2011 redistricting plan for Los Angeles County

What would it take to rethink redistricting at the L.A. County level?

What would it take for an independent commission to draw the new district lines every 10 years, instead of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors? Many argue the supervisors have job security unjustly prioritized.

What would it take for a power shift?

"A scandal," said Justin Levitt, law professor at Loyola Law School.

"If there's litigation that again will cost the taxpayers millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe that will be a sufficient scandal to motivate real public pressure for change in the way the system is run."

That scandal, in the form of a lawsuit, might just be brewing, but remains a mystery.

One month ago, the supervisors decided not to create a second Latino-majority district despite representing a county that contains nearly 50 percent Latinos; a move many decried as unjust, and driven by political motives beyond abiding by the Voting Rights Act (outlawing discriminatory voting practices against minorities.) Speculation of a lawsuit continues to grow.

"After enough litigation, maybe this will all get too expensive for voters to stomach the status quo," Levitt said, later referencing the county's lost courtcase in 1991.

"Sadly, this would be history repeating itself. It would be very consistent with what L.A. has chosen to do and gotten successfully sued for in the past," he said. "This is the first cycle in 50 years where there hasn't yet been a finding of discrimination."

During the 2001 redistricting process, the board decided to voluntarily subject itself to oversight by the Department of Justice.

"It essentially volunteered to adopt the rules the DOJ has in place for the jurisdiction with the most blatant record of discrimination in the country: the Deep South," Levitt said. "The same thing Georgia and Mississippi have to do because of their treatment of African Americans in the 1960s, L.A. County said voluntarily we'll subject ourselves to the same standards, and there wasn't discrimination in 2000 because the county said we're going to do this thing with the DOJ watching every step.

"Now, we're in 2011 and I think a lot of people hoping for a different path see the same thing."

In 1991, three plaintiffs sued and prevailed against the county for gerrymandering, paving the way for the first Latino-majority district, and Gloria Molina's election in District 1.

In his opinion, U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski said:

"When the dust has settled and local passions have cooled, this case will be remembered for its lucid demonstration that elected officials engaged in the single-minded pursuit of incumbency can run roughshod over the rights of protected minorities."

The county spent more than $6 million defending its lost case, money spread amongst a number of law firms. The total cost of the case, counting the plaintiff's costs, was $13 million.

"When done right, and that's a big caveat, independent bodies can serve a very valuable purpose, which is making sure something other than 'my job next year' is at stake when drawing the lines," said Levitt.

"... With that sort of pressure, redistricting is where you really see those who are in power cling to that power for dear life. Having some sort of independent body relieves that single, incredibly profound, conflict of interest. I would hope this demonstrates that the process doesn't work, and certainly a lawsuit would further demonstrate that the process doesn't work that well."

For the county to change its method of redistricting, one of two things would need to happen: one, the supervisors could put an item on the ballot; or two, citizens could request one via a petition campaign, collecting the necessary amount of signatures. The state would also have to give the county the power to create an independent commission.

At the county level, option one is highly unlikely, in essence, the supervisors giving up their own power, experts say.

But there is debate over the feasibility, and likelihood, of option two.

"Charter changes happen with frequency," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton and expert on redistricting. "That doesn't seem like it'd be impossible to do. The question is, would people want to do it?"

In 2008, the people of California decided to change the state redistricting system, voting in favor of the creation of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission; wrestling away control from the California State Legislature, which had previously redrawn its own lines.

It was, by no means, an easy task.

To collect enough signatures to get the item on the ballot, it cost more than $2 million -- money that was paid to Kimball Petition Management from two campaign committees.

In the campaign supporting Prop 11, former Gov. Schwarzenegger's California Dream Team donated a whopping $2.4 million.

$1 million came from Charles Munger Jr. (the son of billionaire Charles Munger), and $250,000 from NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, Brian Harvey (the president of Cypress Land Company) and Howard Lester of Williams-Sonoma.

Overall, supporters of Proposition 11 outraised the opposition $14 million to $1 million, and squeked by with 50.9 percent of the vote.

Change takes time, effort, and money. Lots of it.

And while it is not quite as costly an endeavor at the local level, there are still plenty of roadblocks.

Even if an organization gets the required signatures to put the measure on the local ballot, "it's going to be very tough, because the Board's going to fight it," said Alan Clayton, a long-time activist and redistricting expert. "They have a lot of muscle. There will be a campaign and they'll raise money to fight it. And they have a lot of allies."

"I think it would be a good idea," said Cruz Reynoso, a civil rights lawyer and the first Chicano Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court from 1982 to 1987.

While agreeing that seeing change at the state-wide level can be "tougher technically," Reynoso predicts that the political pushback might be greater at the county level.

"I think it would be tougher politically to do the local districts because people seem to have stronger feelings about some of the local districts," he said.

At the board meeting to decide the disputed county map, more than 800 county citizens signed up to speak. They spoke for more than six hours. More than 1,300 showed up.

"I think you'll see a lot of interest in that for next time," said Sonenshein of an independent commission. "... They (Supervisors) probably wouldn't like the idea but the State Legislature didn't like the idea at the state level, and it passed."

More Reading: Anatomy of a Potential L.A. County Redistricting Lawsuit


Daniel Watson is a graduate student at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which has partnered with KCET-TV to produce this blog about policy in Los Angeles.

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