While You Were Sleeping, California Made New Election Laws

By Richard Reeves, truthdig.com, 23 Nov. 2010

William F. Buckley once said, "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University."

A great populist call from a man who, thank goodness, was no populist. But the thought rings through American politics today. Sarah Palin, no Buckley she, is the current spokeswoman for the attitude that the problem with American politics is that there are too many smart and informed people running the country. She is the champion of the ordinary, as a onetime Nebraska senator named Roman Hruska was for the mediocre.

If you remember, and I suppose few do, in 1970, Hruska defended the nomination of G. Harrold Carswell, a strikingly unqualified choice for the United States Supreme Court, by saying: "Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos."

Well, California decided to test that thesis. A majority of voters approved a proposition denying the right of the state Legislature to draw the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts. From now on, the districts will be drawn by 14 ordinary citizens, men and women whose names have been drawn from a hat – not exactly a hat, just one of those spinning cages full of pingpong balls they use in lotteries.

The devils of politics have always been in the details, and in recent American politics the details have been jiggered to favor incumbent congressmen and state legislators, many of them charmingly mediocre. They had the power, and still do in most states, to craftily craft districts to make it difficult to unseat incumbents of either party. In other words, American election laws are basically a contract between the Democrats and Republicans in office to preserve each other and keep outsiders where they belong, outside. Election rules. Ballot designs. Voter registration. All these things were designed to protect incumbents against ordinary voters.

No more in California. Proposition 20 in this month's election won the approval of 50.9 percent of voters. (This contradicts Wikipedia, which says 61.5%.) The proposition completed a series of ballot measures mandating that election districts – from school boards to Congress – will be redrawn by 14 randomly selected citizens. There were 30,000 applicants for these $300-a-day jobs, and the lottery wheel spun for the first time Thursday and the first balls that popped out named eight of the 14: a bookstore owner, an attorney, a retired engineer, a marketing consultant, a caregiver, an insurance executive, a guy who tracks consumer trends and an activist who represents low-income tenants. They will select the other six members of the Citizens Redistricting Commission. Next, the commission – five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents – will look at the maps they've made and vote again. This time nine of the 14 members must approve the final district lines.

That not-so-little revolution will complement another proposition that last year mandated that all California primaries be open. Democrats, Republicans, independents and oddballs of various kinds will all be on the same ballot, and the top two finishers, even if they are in the same party, will run against each other in the general election. That system has been used in various Southern states in the past, but the official Citizens Commission is another California innovation.

Will it work? Probably not. But it is politically exciting to live in a state that will try anything. There are a lot of Californians who think that the problem with things such as tea-partying are that they are just too moderate.

Note: The California commission is not actually selected randomly from California citizens, it is selected randomly from the job applicants. That is quite a different sample. Further, there are party quotas ("five who are registered with the largest political party in California based on registration, five who are registered with the second largest political party in California based on registration, and four who are not registered with either of the two largest political parties in California based on registration.") which is another thing that changes the random sampling process away from pure-uniform independent. See below for other massive deparatures from randomness.

More notes, corrections, and enhancements by Jim Riley: Pretty pathetic reporting. Little wonder that Reeves used to work for the New York Times.

Reeves: "No more in California. Proposition 20 in this month's election won the approval of 50.9 percent of voters."

Actually: Proposition 20 passed with 61.3% support.

Proposition 11 passed with 50.9% support in November 2008. It created the redistricting commission and the process for its selection. Proposition 11 provided that the redistricting commission would draw the boundaries for the state senate and assembly, and the 4-district state board of equalization.

It carefully left congressional districting in the hands of the legislature, and provided that the legislature could take into account partisan data and incumbency. This avoided some direct opposition from the Democratic Party – it is hard to argue for letting the legislators draw their own districts taking partisan consideration and incumbency in place.

The application process began last December with the 60 finalists submitted to the legislature in October.

Proposition 20 added congressional redistricting to the duties of the commission. There was a competing measure, Proposition 27, that was defeated, and would have eliminated the redistricting commission entirely and returned legislative redistricting to the legislature.

Reeves: "The proposition completed a series of ballot measures mandating that election districts – from school boards to Congress – will be redrawn by 14 randomly selected citizens."

Actually: There are no provisions for drawing school board or other local district boundaries. Some applicants cited their experience drawing school attendance zones, or city council boundaries as qualification. The commission will draw the legislative districts, and congressional districts, and the state board of equalization (SBOE) districts. There are 4 SBOE districts, each with about 9 million people. One of the soft requirements is that each SBOE district nest 10 senate districts, which in turn nest 2 assembly districts, so inclusion of the SBOE is more to provide a framework for the legislative districts.

Reeves: "There were 30,000 applicants"

Actually: There were 31,000 initial applicants, or at least those who initiated the application process – which was possible via the internet. 24,915 ultimately completed this stage, which included basic biographical information – sex, race, income range, party affiliation (which had to be constant for 5 years), whether they had voted in the last 3 general elections, and conflict of interest (which in particular relate to legislators and congressmen, staff, campaigns, and lobbying).

4,547 persons completed the next stage, which included essay questions, resume information – education on job history, 3 letters of recommendation, listing of close relatives - spouse, parents, siblings, children, and their spouses, and disclosure of any possible conflicts of interest that they might have. So about 20,000 of those who completed the initial application (82%), realized that they weren't entering a lottery.

The 3 auditors (who each had their own staff) screened the applications, recommending about 300 each, which produced a pool of 622 who got a recommendation from at least one of the 3 auditors. So in this first screening, auditors selected about 6.5% each, which meant 13.6% of those who completed the real application advanced to a second screening.

Note: This is not at all random selection from 30,000 applicants.

The 3 auditors reread the applications of the remaining 622, recommended about 180 each. The 314 who received a recommendation from at least one ??recommendation advanced to the next stage were grouped by party: 115 Democrats, 113 Republicans, 86 other (independent or 3rd party).

The final screening of the written applications took into account party affiliation, and produced 40 Republicans, 40 Democrats, and 40 others. Candidates who received recommendations from all 3 were tentatively advance to the interview stage, and then each auditor would take turns putting forward a candidate they though should be considered. This process would usually result in a few extra beyond 40, and then they'd agree to drop enough to get back to 40.

These 120 were brought to Sacramento for an interview (about 1-1/2) and were also required to complete a financial disclosure form – a few dropped out rather than do so, or other reasons. And at all stages, there was investigation and background checks of the information given. After the interviews, 20 Democrats, 20 Republicans, and 20 others were selected. This is 1.3% of formal applicants.

The minority and majority leaders of the senate and assembly were then permitted to blackball 2 individuals from each group of 20 (2 chambers × 2 leaders × 2 strikes = 8 individuals eliminated from each pool). This produced 12 Democrats, 12 Republicans, and 12 others. So now we are down to 0.8% of the formal applicants.

This is where the random drawing came into place.

Reeves: "just one of those spinning cages full of pingpong balls they use in lotteries." the first balls that popped out named eight of the 14":

"a bookstore owner"

[Who also had been a school board member and city council member in Davis, as well as a lawyer. In selecting candidates, the auditors liked those who had public meeting experience, and other experiences that were considered relevant. As a school board member, he had been involved in districting plans for schools.]

"an attorney"

[This appears to be accurate. Three of the 8 had JD degrees, though this appears to be the only one with an active practice.]

"a retired engineer"

[Director of Engineering for Raytheon, where he was in charge of all R&D for all power electronics. Also current city councilman and former mayor in Claremont.]

"a marketing consultant"

[Her company provides interim executives for high tech companies that are high on tech, but low on company, as well as developing business and marketing plans. Speaks Mandarin Chinese and conversational Japanese, teaches at UC-Berkeley as well as an affiliated university in China.]

"a caregiver"

[For her elderly father, who died earlier this Spring. During this time, she completed work on her PhD in Higher Educational and Organizational Change. Her previous work all appears to have been academic.]

"an insurance executive"

[Insurance broker. It is unclear how large the insurance agency is, small based on its web site. It was apparently started by her father. She is (was?) a lawyer and former president of La Raza Lawyers Association.]

"a guy who tracks consumer trends"

[Former director of the US Census Bureau (in charge of 1980 Census), and General Manager, Corporate Strategy and Knowledge Development for GM where he was in charge of worldwide consumer research.]

"and an activist who represents low-income tenants."

[Her educational background is in city planning.]

Within the area of policy and advocacy, UH focuses primarily on transportation and housing, environmental health, and equitable development issues. Our long-term goal is to ensure that local, regional, state and national policies support principles of social, economic and environmental justice. To achieve this goal, we work with our community partners to hold elected officials and other decision-makers accountable to the needs of the Bay Area's low-income communities and communities of color.

These 8 who were randomly selected from the 3 finalist pools of 12 each, will choose the final 6 members who are intended to ensure that the commission has a diverse membership (though there is a distinct regional bias is the selection process with the median line at about San Jose.

Jim Riley with more news: This is the selection process provided in the ballot summary:

"Requires government auditors to select 60 registered voters from applicant pool. Permits legislative leaders to reduce pool, then the auditors pick eight commission members by lottery, and those commissioners pick six additional members for 14 total."

Here is a graphic of the selection process: http://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/past/2008/general/images/prop11-fig2a.gif http://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/past/2008/general/analysis/prop11-analysis.htm

The lottery part appears fairly prominent. What is not apparent is that the "applicant pool" might have 30,000 people in it, from which 60 (0.2%) would be selected based on merit.

The 3 auditors who did that selection process were also chosen by lottery. There was a requirement that there be one Democrat, one Republican, and one other in that group.

It is not clear how the strikes by the legislative leaders was done. They were give 3 lists of 20 names. The law says that each leader may strike up to 2 persons from each list, so that three subpools would not necessarily be cut down to 12. But 12 persons were on the lists that came back from the legislature, with no indication of who struck who. All application information are public records - but as soon as somebody was eliminated from the selection process, their application was taken off the internet site. You would have to initiate a FOI request to get the application data of those who were struck, and try to determine why any were struck.

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