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April 8, 2014 > California unique with independent citizens panel

California unique with independent citizens panel

By Juliet Williams Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP), In the decade before the 2012 midterm congressional elections, only one of California's 53 congressional seats changed party hands, despite elections every other year in a state with rapidly shifting demographics.

This year, at least five congressional districts are in play, and both Democrats and Republicans are throwing money at the races.

Credit for the shake-up goes to the state's unique independent redistricting commission, a voter-created, 14-member panel of average Californians who redrew the district lines for congressional and legislative seats in 2012. Democratic leaders and some Republicans opposed creating the nonpartisan panel, which has since succeeded in shaking up the electoral status quo and establishing what could be a benchmark for other reform-minded states.

``This is a reform that voters deserve. It's such a blatant matter of self-interest for politicians to have the power to draw their own district lines,'' said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, which backed the two voter-approved initiatives to create the commission and expand its authority to congressional races, in 2008 and 2010.

Alexander noted that in 2012, the first year the new district lines were in place, 14 House incumbents were swept from office or opted against running. The change, coupled with California's adoption of a top-two primary system that allows members of the same party to advance to a general election, means California politicians no longer have the ironclad assurance of a safe seat, she said.

``It's created an environment where our elected representatives do need to keep looking over their shoulder to make sure that they're following the will of the voters,'' Alexander said.

California's independent panel makes it an anomaly. Other states have established non-legislative commissions, but California's is widely seen as one of the most independent and effective.

Gerrymandered districts nationwide helped Republicans hold on to a 33-seat majority in the House in 2012. Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives received 1.4 million more votes nationwide than their GOP opponents, yet Democrats still are in the minority.

Because it is the nation's largest congressional delegation, California's changes play a role in the makeup of Congress. Democrats picked up five additional seats here in 2012, bringing the state's delegation to 38 Democrats and 15 Republicans.

``You had serious primaries, and for once the voters really had some choices,'' said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which analyzes legislative and congressional campaigns. ``On the whole, they are better districts largely because the districts that were drawn by the Legislature were such outrageous gerrymanders.''

The newly drawn districts have had less influence so far in the heavily Democratic state Legislature, although Democrats were able to temporarily capture the crucial two-thirds majority in both houses for the first time in a century.

This year, the competitive House races range from the Sacramento-area seat of Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, who narrowly defeated a veteran Republican in 2012, to San Bernardino, where three Republicans and four Democrats are vying to replace retiring Republican Rep. Gary Miller, who was first elected to the House in 1988.

Quinn, a longtime advocate of independent redistricting, joined California Republicans in a court challenge against the state Senate and congressional maps, but judges did not agree. Voters also rejected a ballot measure to repeal them.

Still, Quinn said, ``Basically, our system has worked.''

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