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Bill Would Halt California Redistricting

House Democrats from California took their first step last week to stifle future attempts by Republicans in the Golden State and elsewhere to redraw Congressional districts more than once every 10 years.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and 21 other Golden State Democrats last week introduced the Redistricting Reform Act, which would permit state legislatures and executives to modify House districts just once during the 10-year period bookended by national head counts performed by the Census Bureau.

The bill has many of the same provisions as a measure introduced earlier this year by Tennessee Reps. John Tanner (D) and Zach Wamp (R).

Lofgren’s bill, effective after 2010, also would require states to set up bipartisan redistricting commissions picked by state lawmakers; Democrats would pick Republicans and vice versa. Nonpolitical members also could be added to the commissions, according to Lofgren’s plan, while public officials, politicians and party aides would be barred from sitting on the panel.

Although Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has not added her name to the legislation, her office confirmed that she does support the bill.

The measure could settle ongoing political feuds in California and elsewhere over mid-decade redistricting, an often controversial practice that also has dominated state politics in Texas and Georgia during the past half-decade. The Supreme Court last year ruled that state legislatures could tweak their political maps whenever and however they pleased — even for political purposes — so long as the final product adhered to the Voting Rights Act.

“I support the creation of independent, bi-partisan commissions in every state to oversee the drawing of all Congressional districts after each decennial census,” Lofgren said. “Redistricting reform should not be undertaken in a state-by-state piecemeal or ad-hoc fashion.”

She added: “A state-by-state approach rewards those that have used, and will continue to use, redistricting as a partisan political tool. Instead, a uniform redistricting standard for all states levels the playing field for all states regardless of which political party may control a state’s legislature.”

Gerald Hebert, a Democratic redistricting expert who heads up the Washington, D.C. –based Campaign Legal Center, suggested Democrats in California have grown weary with ongoing redistricting attempts by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and other Republicans, seen by many Democratic partisans as an opportunistic GOP land grab during a Republican governorship in the bluest of blue states.

Democrats hold a 34-19 seat edge in the Golden State Congressional delegation and substantial majorities in the California Legislature.

Schwarzenegger placed a redistricting reform measure on the ballot in 2005, which failed, and is working with the Legislature in the hopes of doing so again.

“When the referendum was before the voters in 2005, the Democrats actively fought to defeat it because it was a power play with Gov. Schwarzenegger,” Hebert said. “It became a political football and then went down because it would’ve done a mid-decade redistricting right away and was seen as a power grab.”

Plans similar to Lofgren’s proposal, Hebert said, also appear to avoid large legal pitfalls by applying only to federal House districts, a legal opinion shared by the Congressional Research Service lawyers.

The Tanner-Wamp measure and Lofgren’s currently are parked before the House Judiciary Committee.

“It’s constitutional for the Congress to prescribe procedures that should be followed for Congressional redistricting,” Hebert said. “Because it is applicable only for Congressional elections … it is within Congress’ power under Article I to proscribe the method for Congressional redistricting in the states.”

In a prepared statement, Lofgren appeared to make clear that ongoing spats in her state are what’s driving her bill. She said voters settled the issue of redistricting reform during the special election called by Schwarzenegger two years ago.

“In California, we must also remember that our voters have already spoken out against piecemeal redistricting numerous times,” Lofgren said. “By forcing California’s voters to accept a piecemeal plan, we risk diluting their representational strength in Congress and may strengthen the hand of those who do not have California’s interests at heart.”

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