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Another day in the sun for Wentworth

The longer that the redistricting litigation drags on, the more opportunities there will be for stories to be written about State Sen. Jeff Wentworth and his bipartisan redistricting commission proposal.

Sen. Jeff Wentworth

State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, has been a longtime proponent of creating a redistricting commission to draw new boundaries every 10 years to reflect population changes after the U.S. census.

Wentworth said his idea would cost the state less money and be more efficient.

“And the state legislators are not distracted and have the attention diverted from the more important issues,” he said, adding that redistricting “becomes the single most important issue after only the budget” in redistricting years because re-election trumps almost everything else for most members.

[…]

A realist, Wentworth said he would attempt to create a redistricting commission only for Congress. It requires a simple majority vote of both chambers and the governor’s signature.

Getting a commission to be in charge of legislative redistricting would be more difficult, requiring a state constitutional amendment, which needs a two-thirds vote in each chamber as well as voter approval. Wentworth said it would be “an insurmountable mountain” for the Legislature to climb.

Wentworth’s plan for a congressional redistricting committee would have eight people, who could not be lobbyists or lawmakers and who would be chosen by the Legislature.

Thirteen other states have redistricting committees with varying structures. In some states, legislators appoint the members of the commission, while other states try to keep lawmakers out of the process.

The National Conference of State Legislators notes that the track record of commissions’ success is inconsistent and that courts often end up getting involved anyway.

“Reformers often mistakenly assume that commissions will be less partisan than legislatures when conducting redistricting, but that depends largely on the design of the board or commission,” the conference says on its website.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund was critical of commissions in a 2010 report, noting that they are not accountable to the citizens as elected politicians are.

The report notes that commissions “do not guarantee a process or final redistricting plan that will protect minority voting rights.”

I’m sure that will sound familiar to anyone who’s been following this saga. To me, the main weakness of the Wentworth proposal is that it is necessarily limited to Congressional redistricting. I understand the reasons for that, but it should be clear that simply adopting a commission for Congress won’t make the redistricting process any less contentious or litigious. Congressional maps grab the headlines, but the State House and State Senate maps are large components of the ongoing lawsuits, and the State House map was singled out by both the Justice Department and the San Antonio court as being retrogressive. Even with the Wentworth proposal as law last year, we’d still have had lawsuits, and may well still be in the position we are now, not knowing when our primaries can take place.

And that assumes that the Congressional map drawn by the Wentworth Commission would be free of controversy. The state of California now uses a Wentworth-like commission for its redistricting, and the results have been contentious as ever.

“Redistricting and lawsuits go hand in hand,” [Douglas Johnson, a commission expert and a fellow with the nonpartisan Rose Institute of State and Local Governments at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California] said.

After the first round, many Republicans feel as though they were short-changed, Johnson said. The map drawn for the state Assembly has gone unchallenged. But the Republicans have some serious problems with the state Senate map.

A referendum to overturn the commission’s map will go before the voters as Republicans scramble to rein in the power of California Democrats.

“Simply forming a commission doesn’t get rid of the controversy,” Johnson said. “It remains a difficult and controversial process.”

Another challenge came from a former California Republican congressman.

George Radanovich filed a lawsuit to challenge the map on grounds that it violates the Voting Rights Act by intentionally diluting the African American vote in the Los Angeles area.

Johnson says that the new way was still better than the old way, and he may well be right. All I’m saying is that there is no way to remove the politics of this, and there are no solutions that everyone will agree on. As long as there are winners and losers in redistricting, there will be fights about it.

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